In the grip of polls


April 06, 2016

Frequent elections may be good for democracy, but hurt governance. Not only can governments not take decisions for fear of violating the code which disallows influencing the voter, even ministers are more often on poll duty than in office. No wonder then that PM Modi has echoed what Rajiv Gandhi said long ago.

It may sound strange that two prime ministers from opposite sides of the political spectrum should be making the same proposal with a gap of over two and a half decades. Both were concerned about the country’s favourite annual event, elections, which are very much part and parcel of any democracy. But, the frequency of holding elections was something that the two prime ministers had reservations about.

The contrast is interesting. The then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, had rattled state chief ministers belonging to his party as well as those of the opposition by a casual remark way back in the 1980s. His remark came in response to a point raised by the then chief election commissioner that simultaneous elections to parliament as well as state legislative assemblies would be ideal and would even cost less than frequent and separate elections.

Rajiv Gandhi’s response was that it was for the chief ministers to decide and that he, as such, had no issues with simultaneous elections to both the legislative bodies. The issue did cause some amount of discomfort but senior Congressmen were able to convince their leader that it would not be advantageous to the party in the long run. They, the ‘oldies’, as they used to be described by the Rajiv brigade, just like his son Rahul’s brigade in the current situation call, finally had their way as well.

The strange aspect is that Rajiv Gandhi’s view has now been echoed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even though his party has always preferred simultaneous elections. His view was made public through sources in the party after a high level meeting recently. The interesting aspect is his concern is similar to that of Rajiv Gandhi. That governance gets impacted with frequent elections. Both of them, from a certain perspective, do have a point.

Take the latest example of the last two years. Since the election of 2014 which changed India when Modi came to power, the country has seen elections to state legislative assemblies every year. In 2014 itself, along with the parliament elections, there were elections held to eight assemblies. In 2015, it was the turn of Delhi first and a few months later, it was Bihar. And, on Monday the process for the elections in the eastern states of West Bengal and Assam has begun. These states go to the polls in several phases along with the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala and the union territory of Pondicherry. The two month long process ends on May 19 when the results will be known.

The point that Modi and several others are making is that during the period when the Election Commission sets the process into motion, governance suffers with undue delays. Decision making in government, sometimes even at the federal level, comes to a standstill because it will be violative of the election code. In simple words, it means there should be no decision of a government that will even appear to either appease or influence the voter during the course of the election.

Plus the entire focus of the ministers turns towards campaigning for the party candidates. In the case of the BJP, at least in the last two years, even the Prime Minister’s schedule went haywire because he was the main campaigner for his party. He has, however, kept a lower profile in the current phase because of the losses the party suffered in Bihar. And, this is not all the election duty that is done by the ministers. Invariably, there are also the elections to the local bodies, urban and rural, which consume quite a lot of time. And, then there are by-elections to the assembly as well. In other words, the political machinery is constantly fighting elections while governance takes a back seat.

But, there is also the other side of the story in this debate of not holding simultaneous elections. To go back again a bit into history, simultaneous elections were, indeed, held four times between 1952 to 1967. It was only later when the assemblies could not continue to function because of political changes or defections that the entire system went for a toss. It is similar to the latest situation in the northern state of Uttarakhand where the Congress rebels have joined hands with the BJP to bring down the Congress party government.

Normally, President’s Rule is imposed but it cannot be a permanent feature until the next election is held, say along with parliament in 2019. It could also lead to arrogance on the part of those in power that would make them indulge in actions that are patently not in the larger interest of society or people. In fact, the last two years provide several examples. The approach of the ruling party, for instance, changed after it suffered a defeat in the election to the Bihar legislative assembly last November. It realised that controversies like ban on beef (or buffalo) meat and the lynching of a man in Dadri on the issue was not taken lightly by even those who did not belong to the minority communities in the eastern state. It also forced the party change to its approach in its federal budget - from being pro-rich-and-famous to trying a rural focus.

In simpler terms, there are a couple of conclusions that can be drawn. That constant holding of elections does help the people to message back to those in power about their functioning. After all, that is the essence of democracy. That it is necessary for those in power to work at such level of efficiency that makes people appreciate their rule. It means that the challenge of exercising administrative power for good governance is for real. It is not easy being a politician in the world’s largest democracy!

Windies all the way

India has found a new hero. And, where else but on the cricket field. Virat Kohli has rocked the country like none other after the great Sachin Tendulkar. He has created a record of sorts which beats even his captain Mahender Singh Dhoni in the shorter version of the game. This was in chasing the other team’s score. The player who carries his determination on his face, however, also showed a lot of grace at Kolkata when he bowed to Tendulkar after taking India to the semi-finals of the World T-20 tournament.

But, the tournament itself belonged to the underdogs, the West Indies. They arrived in India with not even the good wishes of their cricket board but they won the hearts of the people with their spirit. If there is any team that carries the spirit of the game on or off the field, literally, on its sleeves, it is this team. It is difficult to imagine any other team player joining a victory jig of the rival team on the field so sportingly. Chris Gayle, despite ups and downs on the field, readily acceded to the request of the Afghanistan team to lead the jig for them. This after the team had beaten the West Indians!

This is one World T20 that the West Indians deserved to carry home. It was not just for cricket but for their sportsmanship. And, it was not confined only to the men. Their women’s team displayed similar spirit in winning the World T-20 women’s Cup. So, when the cricket-crazy people of India gave the West Indians a standing ovation, it was for their cricketing spirit. It was the appreciation of a similar fighting spirit, some decades ago, that made the entire stadium in the southern city of Chennai give a standing ovation to the Pakistani team. So, when a Shahid Afridi made the statement that people of India love him more than his people in Pakistan, it was to be taken in the true spirit of the game. That Afridi tried to clumsily balance himself later and quit his captaincy is a different issue. The bottom line: Cheers to sportsmanship of the West Indian men and women, Afridi for his honest statement and to the cricket fans.

Tailpiece

Mehbooba Mufti has become the first woman chief minister of the border state of Jammu and Kashmir. The single mother of two has finally settled her differences with the political ally of her Peoples’ Democratic Party or PDP, the BJP, to form the new government. Mehbooba had reservations that she wanted sorted out after her father, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, passed away. But, typical of social media, somebody picked on common aspects of her ascending to power.

They drew comparison’s with the other three existing women chief ministers of Indian states - Mamata Banerjee in the east, Anandiben Patel in the west, and Jayaram Jayalalithaa in the south. They said, Mehbooba completes the missing north. They also commented on the marital status of all four and linked it to the ‘bachelor’ ruling the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi!

[The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Muscat Daily or Apex Press & Publishing]