Think seriously of 2019 Election Democracy needs citizens to step up

Swapan K Chattopadhyay & Debasish Bhattacharyya, in the Sstatesman, December 6, 2018 8:00 am

Note: The country is already caught in election fever-2019. What is it all about? The talk is about ‘Patriotism’ – my country right or wrong, and ‘Politics’ – my party winning by hook or crook. It is neither because both are divisive, the first on a global level and the second on the national level.

Since we live in a global community, not independent but interdependent, all should work to promote cooperation and reduce conflict. So too on national level political parties should give top priority to national good, not of one’s party’s good. Politics is to promote the greatest good of the greatest number in the country, not in one’s party.

Development of down-trodden first

That is what motto: “Sub ka vikas, sub ka sat” of Modi clearly proclaims. But has it been implemented in the last five years of Modi rule? Not at all. What is promoted is Hindutva of Ram Janmaboomi, and faith traditions of Sabarimala. Majority of Indians live in village doing agriculture. So the urgent need of the hour is productive job opportunities for all starting with illiterate manual labourers  and for those in the literate sections upwards,

So what is needed is to elect leaders with vision, conviction and courage, who will work first for the most lowly placed in wealth, health, housing and education and in that order. For that each party should have brought out their election manifetos high lighting their priorities, which none of the parties have done.  

We the people must rule

In a democracy the actual rulers are “we the people” and elected leaders, only servants of the people starting with those in most need. For that what we need is leaders like Lal Bahadur Shastri, very short in stature and TALL in ideals, about whom the article below says the following:

“In October 1964, when Lal Bahadur Shastri was the Prime Minister, like always, he went to Delhi’s St Columba’s School to collect his son’s marksheet and stood outside the classroom. Seeing the PM waiting outside, the teacher said that the school would have sent the marksheet to the PM’s residence. To this, Shastri told the teacher, “It seems after I have become the PM you have changed. I have not (changed).”

Think of leaders like Sastri for 2019, irrespective of party affliations to serve all and strengthen Democracy in India. Government is your business not of politicians.  james kottoor, editor ccv


Please read below article on Democracy in Statesman

Patriotism is the last refuge for a scoundrel,’ Dr Samuel Johnson said. In George Bernard Shaw’s words, ‘Politics is the last resort for the scoundrel.’ “Were these two great critics alive today, sure they would have corrected their quotes by replacing ‘last’ with ‘first’,” a Bangalore-based techie Bubby Andrews wisecracked to reflect the current political situation of India.

This attitude of the voters to stay away from voting, either under threat or because of their reluctance, drives one to the conclusion that in the first case the authorities, responsible for ensuring peaceful polling, have failed Constitution. Therefore, to empower the people, not mere literacy, but universal quality education is an urgent need.

In the distant future when people look back at what happened in this century, they will find it difficult not to accord primacy to the emergence of democracy as the pre-eminently acceptable form of governance. In 1950, India accepted democracy as a form of governance. Over the decades the Indian democracy has grown into a way of life and has become a unique example for many countries to emulate.

Sen and Dreze, in their book, “An Uncertain Glory”, while assessing how well democracy has worked in India, have stated that the basic norms of democracy have in general been followed with much success, and attempts at suspending democratic rights, as happened during the Emergency in the 1970s, have met with immediate rejection in electoral voting, with the rehabilitation of all the democratic rights that had been suspended.

Since Independence, barring sporadic communal violence, India, in spite of having a multi-religious population, has been able to maintain a secular image.On the economic front, between 2000-1 and 2010-11, the country’s GDP was 7.6 and the per capita GDP was 6.0. Going by the average standard of the Indian economy as a whole, and accepting some periodic ups and downs in economic performance as inevitable, this can be regarded as a moderate achievement.

Samuel Huntington, the author of The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, has stated that open, free, and fair elections are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non. From that point of view, since Independence elections in India have become an integral part of the entire democratic system. Besides, the existence of a Parliament has become the hallmark of Indian democracy. The Constitution is federal in form and is marked by the traditional characteristics of a federal system supremacy of the Constitution, division of power between the Union and the State governments.

This has further been taken to the grass-root level by the 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution, which have empowered the panchayats and the urban local bodies both socially and economically An independent judiciary and a rigid procedure for the amendment of the Constitution are also the safeguards of our democracy.

So far so good. But of late, given a host of certain developments in the Indian polity, it appears that the inexorable progress of democracy is going to lose its momentum pushing the entire system to a vulnerable position for which we have very little concern. So far as the elections are concerned, are they “open,” “free” and “fair” enough in the true sense of the terms?

In order to conduct the elections, the deployment of paramilitary forces in various places becomes unavoidable; otherwise peaceful polling, ensuring people’s participation, may not be possible. The incidents of voters being bribed are not rare. In many of the polling booths the percentage of votes polled is either too low or abnormally high.

Where it is too low, it can be assumed that a large number of voters stayed away from exercising their voting right, either under threat or they did not want to give much importance to their democratic right, protected by the Constitution. Where the percentage of votes polled is too high, there is reason to believe that a large number of false votes were cast.

In areas that are difficult to reach, the percentage of votes polled is very poor. This apart, the musclemen, engaged by the political parties play a major role in the elections creating an atmosphere of violence all around. This prevents voters from spontaneously approaching the booths to cast their votes.

This attitude of the voters to stay away from voting, either under threat or because of their reluctance, drives one to the conclusion that in the first case the authorities, responsible for ensuring peaceful polling, have failed in their duty. In the second case, the citizens are not sufficiently educated to realise the importance of their voting right which is embodied in the Constitution. Therefore, to empower the people, not mere literacy, but universal quality education is an urgent need.

When religion becomes an issue in the campaign, it packs a punch. The governance hardly remains secular in nature, as a consequence of which, the progress of democracy gets stalled. In her thought-provoking book, The Public Intellectual in India, Professor Romila Thapar has aptly stated that we have drifted away from our initial concerns like establishing democratic functioning and respect for citizenship, ensuring human rights and social justice and protecting the underprivileged and those on and below the line of poverty. Today, the focus is shifting to the question of religious identity and assertions of those who form the majority community, deepening the demarcation between communities and weakening social justice and the institutions that sustain society.

Democracy without its complement of secular thinking falls short of being a democracy.

Amartya Sen has stated in his book, Collective Choice and Social Welfare that in terms of the public ballot, the ballot result is all that counts no matter how incomplete and marred by misleading advertisements and posters sometimes even fanning racist sentiments the public discussion preceding the voting might have been. Using posttruth, political parties now try to win elections. This only weakens the democratic system.

Democracy without an Opposition is an oxymoron. Recently it has become a fashion for some political parties, particularly those that are strong and powerful, to make India’s democracy Opposition-free. This agenda has an authoritarian tone. C. Rajagopalachari had very appropriately pointed out the importance of the Opposition in a democracy “A strong Opposition,” he said, “is essential for the health of a democratic government. In a democracy based on universal suffrage, the government of the majority without an effective Opposition is like driving a donkey on whose back you put the whole load in one bundle.”(To be concluded The writer is a retired civil servant.)

Sometimes a sharp remark is all it takes to capture serious issues, or so it seems. Take this one. In columnist Mini Tejaswi’s article ‘Indian millennials have no trust in politics, politicians’, a Bangalore-based techie Bubby Andrews wisecracked to reflect the current political situation of India.

“ ‘Patriotism is the last refuge for a scoundrel,’ Dr Samuel Johnson said. In George Bernard Shaw’s words, ‘Politics is the last resort for the scoundrel.’ “Were these two great critics alive today, sure they would have corrected their quotes by replacing ‘last’ with ‘first’,” Andrews quipped.

People may agree or disagree with Andrews’ striking comment but it’s too politically delicious to ignore. More so given the fact that 1,765 (36 per cent) MPs and MLAs as against a total of 4,896 lawmakers in Parliament and assemblies are facing criminal trial in 3,045 cases. Also, among the remaining parliamentarians and state assembly members, many are perceived to be self-serving and unscrupulous lawmakers.

According to a noted political commentator, candidates facing criminal charges are three times more likely to win a seat than those with a clean record. And, as ‘win-ability’ of a candidate rules the roost in electoral politics, political parties merrily go for such candidates as a strategic choice. So, in socially fragmented societies, political parties flourish and survive through their constituencies influencing political arithmetic.

This brings up the question whether it really makes a good idea to queue up at polling stations every five years with voter’s identity card and go into a booth to press the button on the EVMs. While India’s seven-decade-old post-independence history is marked by several achievements and rapid strides in several domains, it’s also marked by declining public trust in Indian electoral governance and institutions. And this decline is symptomatic of falling standards of political discourse and electoral decorum.

As quality political discourse has almost ceased to be an essential part of democracy, elections have been significantly reduced to exercising power of rhetoric by political parties and their leaders. Thus, the art of political persuasion becomes the hallmark of electoral politics in India. Put differently, politicians care what it is they can convince people they desire, so they can better appeal to it.

As election fever starts gripping the country in the run-up to 2019, another general election of brazen appeals confronts us. This will be another election time when politicians will have licence to lie through their teeth, and another election funded by black money (according to one academic estimate, the 2014 election cost Rs 500 crores of black money).

It will be another election at risk of being exposed to fake/paid news as also half-truths. In such a situation, is it any wonder people seem to be having a hard time in distinguishing facts from real facts, reality from propaganda? More so in societies trapped in illiteracy, poverty and ignorance.

Having read thus far, one may infer that this is just yet another attempt to stir up the country’s political froth to hold politicians responsible for making democracy self-deceiving and absolve common citizens of their responsibilities. It’s not. In the words of David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University – “Democracy asks only that the voters should be around long enough to suffer for their own mistakes.” After all political leaders reflect the culture of their times.

It’s an unavoidable truth that the common people too have contributed to a decline in democracy and governance. Three anecdotes should suffice.As early as in October 1964, when Lal Bahadur Shastri was the Prime Minister, like always, he went to Delhi’s St Columba’s School to collect his son’s marksheet and stood outside the classroom. Seeing the PM waiting outside, the teacher said that the school would have sent the marksheet to the PM’s residence. To this, Shastri told the teacher, “It seems after I have become the PM you have changed. I have not (changed).”

A recent study by Emmerich Davies specializing in education policy and politics of Harvard Graduate School of Education shows teacher absenteeism in government schools in India drops in the year immediately preceding an election year and in the same year as the election. As elected officials show increased concern for public services before the polls, teachers often pay heed to the concerns of elected officials, because these officials can affect hiring, firing and transfer of public-sector employees, including teachers.

LK Advani’s much-talked-about observation – when asked to bend, they were willing to crawl – is no longer limited to the Press alone – it’s applicable across a broad range of societal settings. Thus, when the country’s educated citizenry care little for basic principles, public virtue and greater civic education; how can the uneducated and unthinking be held responsible for voting blindly causing disservice to the country? To fix our democracy we need to be better citizens before we can expect better politicians. If we haven’t bothered as yet to be responsible citizens, it’s unfair to hold elected officials up to scorn. Saner politics require better politicians as much as better citizens.

What could be more alien to a healthy and functional democracy than political activists, commentators and analysts geared up to outdo each other on various platforms replacing commitment to fundamental democratic principles with loyalty to a party or ideology. And, it is this political quagmire of politics that influences people to get swayed by political charm without substance and rhetoric without righteousness.

Participation in elections is certainly a civic duty, but more importantly an opportunity for citizens to choose leaders who will work to ensure effective democratic governance that can deliver sustainable solutions to the challenges the country is faced with.

It’s way too soon to wonder who will win ‘battle 2019’ but, it’s not too soon to foresee that political parties will continue to field substandard/ undesirable candidates. This will result in deepening the gulf between politician and common people promoting intermingling of politics, wealth and crime.

One wonders if the deeper messages, those that have been obvious for Indian elections but are growing louder and more persistent, will be ignored again, as though a sullen, distrustful electorate is something only to be managed and manipulated.

However, rather than thinking of Indian democracy as one of the worst forms of politics, we could think of it as the best when at its worst. Let’s take the opportunity that this moment offers.

The good thing is that people may have been let down by the politician, but they have not lost faith in politics still. Therefore, as citizens are hungry for leaders to step in and step up political processes and governance to build a corruption-free and responsive political system, they need to exercise their democratic rights conscientiously.

NOTA’s applicability needs a robust approach to the extent that electoral reform measures should include a bar on losing candidates from contesting the re-election if NOTA get the highest number of votes. It would go a long way in enhancing the quality of candidates capable of delivering and supporting progressive measures for the greater good.

India is a young country and its democracy continues to mature. If democracy’s appeal is widespread, so are its limitations. At stake today is not only the functioning of the largest democracy but its moral agenda which is more substantive than partisan politics. Hence, where we go from here would depend on how citizens use the democratic levers that they have available to them.

(The writer is former Dy. General Manager, India International Centre, New Delhi and General Manager, International Centre, Goa.)

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