Archive for the ‘elections’ Category

The Congress Needs A New Raga

As an IAS probationer in the Foundation Course at the Mussoorie Academy, I participated in a debate on the topic “This house awaits the coming of another Gandhi”. Most of the speakers, including yours truly, bored the audience with references to the need for another Mahatma Gandhi. Till an intelligent batchmate from the Foreign Service electrified the audience by asserting that the time had come for Rajiv Gandhi to don the mantle of leader of the Indian National Congress (Congress). This was just after Sanjay Gandhi’s unexpected demise, at a time when Indira Gandhi, having demolished a fractious post-Emergency opposition, looked set to rule for another fifteen years at least. All of us probationers were unanimous in our opinion that he deserved to win. Alas, the hoary eminences comprising the judges (drawn from the faculty) took a dim view of his brilliant exposition, probably because of his biting satire on dynastic politics and how the Congress party could not survive without it.

The above incident came to mind after the bombshell of the 2019 election results which swept the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power. Since then, we have been witness to the Grand Old Party of India’s independence, the Congress, going through agonising paroxysms of introspection on its dismal performance. As expected, Rahul Gandhi (RaGa to friend and foe) decided to quit as party president. After the tamasha of weeping courtiers asking him to stay put and wild speculation on possible successors, the garland fell once again around the neck of his mother, Sonia Gandhi, an affine if not an agnate of the Nehru-Gandhi lineage. Meanwhile, the Congress is hemorrhaging rapidly, aided by a liberal supply of anticoagulants from the BJP. Its performance in the Maharashtra and Bihar Vidhan Sabha elections and the recent Hyderabad municipal elections indicate a party in terminal decline. The revolt that is yet to be of 23 prominent party functionaries is a pointer to the agonies of many loyal Congressis of a directionless drift of the party and the complete absence of a charismatic leader. Clearly, a new Raga has to be added to the Congress’ repertoire to replace the old RaGa. I venture to offer certain suggestions for ensuring India does not become a single national party polity.

  • Go back a century and enroll committed party members

It is interesting to note that the Congress, a party of the elite, propertied and professional class, broad based its membership in the early 1920s, thanks to that master organiser, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. A party which had an almost nonexistent mass base was, in the course of a few years, able to draw a large mass of women and men into the freedom struggle. I am not aware of any concerted effort by the Congress party of today to actively draw citizens, especially youth, into its fold. The 1920s Congress encouraged two types of members: (a) persons over 18 years of age who accepted the objects and methods of the party; (b) those who, in addition, paid an annual subscription of four annas. The paid-up members alone could become members of primary organisations controlled by the Provincial Congress Committees. A similar strategy could be envisaged in the present day, rendered simpler and far more wide-ranging through use of modern technology. Those wishing to play a role in the organisations functioning under the Congress may pay an annual fee of, say, ₹500. The aim should be to build up a cadre of committed party workers, both paid-up members and otherwise, wedded to the party ethos and culture.

  • Develop a strong organisational structure

The Constitution adopted by the Congress in 1920 had provisions for Committees right from the All India Congress Committee at the apex level to Town and Village Committees at the cutting edge of interface with the populace. Given today’s electoral politics, party cadres need to be involved right from the polling booth level, during elections, of course, but, more importantly, in the interregnum between elections. Party workers must interact with the public to understand and redress their problems, especially with the local bureaucracy. The ideology and values of the party must be conveyed to voters to win their support. An area where party workers can play a significant role is in checking voter lists and ensuring that all eligible voters are included in the electoral rolls: there have been innumerable complaints of names missing from electoral rolls.

  • Build inner party democracy and create stakes in the party

            The flight of talented political workers from the Congress party has been occasioned in no small measure by the widespread feeling that “dynasts” have an edge in getting nominated for elections and that merit has little role to play in candidate selection and in important organisational posts. The 1920s Congress had elections at every level to organisation posts: thus, town and taluka Committee members elected the Provincial Congress Committee members, who, in turn, elected members of the All India Congress Committee. Care was also taken to maintain a balance between provinces. While local economic and caste/religion considerations will still influence elections to organisational bodies, there should at least be a feeling that a level playing field is available to all contestants, giving them full scope to exercise their powers to sway their electors on the basis of their personalities and programmes.

  • Empower regional leaders

            Ever since the Indira Gandhi years, powerful state leaders have repeatedly been cut to size and hounded out of the party. The recent legislative assembly elections in states like Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan show that giving a free hand to powerful local leaders pays handsome dividends. Leadership changes during the five year tenure of a government should be eschewed, save exceptional reasons. In states where the Congress plays a secondary role to regional parties, strong ties should be sought to be built up with these parties, with the Congress willing to accept the role of junior partner till such time as it strengthens its political base in those states. Maharashtra is an example of the Congress playing third fiddle, a role it has to accept with grace, given its limited options.

  • Keep Aaya Rams-Gaya Rams and cynical power brokers at arm’s length

            Rajiv Gandhi had this objective in mind in 1985, but failed because he surrounded himself with a coterie completely out of touch with the mood of the masses. The recent example of Madhya Pradesh is a sobering reminder to the Congress of how vaulting personal ambitions of a single, disaffected party man can bring down an elected government. Given the “saam-daam-dand-bheda” tactics in Indian politics today, it would be the height of naivety to hope for undying loyalty to a party. A beginning can, however, be made to cleanse the Augean stables by investing the party with a new sense of purpose linked firmly to the principles enunciated in the Constitution of India and forswearing the use of money and muscle power to achieve narrow, short-sighted political ends. Eschewing the use of power brokers could render the party less liable to arm-twisting of its finance gatherers by an opponent who has no qualms about the opportunistic use of investigative agencies to hound political rivals. A rule should also be enforced that no recently admitted former Congressperson-turned-defector-turned Congressperson or her/his near relatives will be eligible for tickets at any level of elections, both party and legislative, for a period of ten years after readmission to the Congress.

  • Convey to the people the priorities of the party and keep the incumbent government(s) on its/their toes all the time

            Elections are now being viewed by all political parties as a mere instrumentality for them to gain power, with no further engagement with the people in the intervening five year period between elections. The recent ramming through of ordinances and legislation without any public consultation or debate, whether it be the CAA, triple talaq, labour laws or farm bills, is indicative of a mindset that treats the people as sheep, faithfully moving wherever the shepherd takes them. It is here that a party like the Congress must clearly state its position on various issues related to the economy, polity and society and enunciate its vision of where it sees the country in twenty years’ time and what it seeks to offer different groups in society. Above all, the party needs to combat the spread of hatred, bigotry and divisiveness that is strangling increasingly larger sections of the Hindu community through exposing the falsehoods conveyed to them to feed on their sense of victimhood. As a responsible opposition, the Congress has to take up the cause of those who face the brunt of misuse and abuse of legislation and arbitrary state actions, through continued political and judicial interventions and through a vigorous media campaign. It should also not shy away from espousing the causes of groups which have legitimate grievances about the adverse impact of government policies and legislation on their livelihoods and the fundamental rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution.

            For initiating the steps indicated above, the Congress needs, above all, a leadership imbued with a sense of purpose and a determination to come to power in the next general elections. The current scenario for the party is, to say the least, pessimistic. Its not so young leader, RaGa, was apparently away from India at a time when thousands of agitated farmers were braving the bitter cold to voice their opposition to the recently passed farm legislation. The Congress or, for that matter, all opposition parties are conspicuous by their absence at the Singhu and Tikri borders with Delhi. The party has not taken a resolute stand on matters like the “love jihad” ordinances in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh or the misuse of draconian legislation like the UAPA and sedition provisions to stifle legitimate dissent.

            Most noticeably, the Congress does not seem to have any strategy in place to contest the crucial polls in West Bengal, due in a few months. When all political pundits are forecasting a grim tussle between the incumbent Trinamool Congress (TMC) and an aggressive BJP, the Congress seems bent on hara kiri by allying in West Bengal with a vanishing left front, when common sense dictates that it tie up with the TMC to keep its principal national opponent from grabbing power. The same Congress seems to develop cold feet in contemplating an alliance with the left in Kerala, a state that is on the BJP’s radar in the near future, if not immediately.

            All these developments indicate a party with no sense of direction. The Congress needs to find a new leader: the Gandhi magic has outlived its utility. A new Raga (definitely not the toady (Todi?) raga in vogue so far) is needed to reinvigorate the party. State units need to be revamped, not through nominated office-bearers, but through elected politicians. A new national front needs to be contemplated, where the Congress takes the lead in roping in strong regional parties. The Congress needs to realise that, for the foreseeable future, it needs to play second fiddle in many states, keeping its sights on attaining power at the centre and leaving its regional allies to come to power in the states. Federal democracy, which has been buffeted in recent years, will thereby receive a fillip. The hour needs to find the (wo)man now.

 

 

 

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

(After a nine month hiatus, the Gadfly Column resumes publication today. Blogs will be published on the first and fifteenth days of every month. The blogs will also be carried on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Comments are welcome)

 

It is a reflection of the irony of our times that a blog on liberal democracy has, for its title, the words of Chairman Mao in 1957, when he said “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Over sixty years later, the jury is still out on whether this represented a genuine attempt to encourage inner party democracy or whether it was a shrewd move aimed at weeding out dissidents, followed as it was by a ruthless purge reminiscent of the Stalinist Soviet Union of the 1930s. And yet, the beauty of Indian liberal democracy since 1947 has been the space given for alternative views to flourish and for state policy to reflect the consensus arrived at after listening to opinions from all shades of the political spectrum.

Of course, there have been the occasional hiccups like the Emergency and the tendency of successive governments in India (both at the centre and in the states) to use draconian legislation to curb views interpreted by them as seditious or as a threat to public order. But Indian democracy has survived so far, despite the gloomy prognostications of many Western “Cassandras”, precisely because of its diverse population, drawn from a khichdi of languages, religions, castes and ethnicities.

I will stick out my neck by saying that caste divisions in the majority Hindu community and the formation of linguistic states postponed the slide into a unitarian state ruled by one community. Undoubtedly, there is much to be said for reforming Hindu society through the “annihilation” of caste as a marker of social privilege. But the assertion of specific caste groupings through the electoral process in different states ensured that political power did not remain with a monolith like the Congress. When the Janata party experiment failed in 1979, one of the reasons was the discomfort of various coalition partners with what they saw as the efforts of the then Jan Sangh to use the levers of powers to build up its sectarian political base. The fall of the V.P. Singh government, backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in 1990 was a foregone conclusion right from day one of that government. The Raja of Manda knew his survival as Prime Minister was contingent on withstanding the Ram Mandir Shilanyas programme and L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra. His Mandal gambit was intended to check the possibility of the consolidation of the Hindu community on the emotive Ram Janmabhoomi issue. Unfortunately for him, not only was the Congress Party not willing to back him, the “Young Turk” Chandrashekhar was only too ready to assume the mantle of Prime Minister, even if only for a little over seven months. The 1990s rise of parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), based on the support of specific castes and social groups, ensured that, for twenty five years after the Babri Masjid demolition, the party that stood to gain from its demolition was in power for just five years in Uttar Pradesh (UP).

Nehru and Rajaji were strongly opposed to the creation of linguistic states, worried as they were about the development of fissiparous tendencies in the new republic. It took the martyrdom of Potti Sriramulu to hasten the move towards linguistic states. Political developments in the 1960s seemed to vindicate their fears: the attempted imposition of Hindi provoked a backlash in Tamil Nadu (then Madras State) and the bifurcation of Punjab raised strong passions in the Punjabi Sikh population (to be unfortunately revived in the years after 1980). But the creation of linguistic states also had a positive spin off in the formation of strong regional parties, starting with the DMK in Tamil Nadu, followed by the star duo of MGR and NTR in the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and spreading like wildfire to states all across the country, from UP, Bihar, Maharashtra and Karnataka to Odisha, Assam and Bengal.

The clout of regional parties has diminished somewhat in recent years, thanks to a variety of reasons. Poor governance, especially in states like UP, has cost parties like the BSP and SP dear, while the influence of “Big Brother” BJP has reduced the scope for independent maneuvering by parties like the Biju Janata Dal and the Telugu Desam Party. With legislators apparently ready to desert the ship that won them the elections (for reasons that do not need to be explicitly spelt out here), India has entered a phase of fluid politics, where the results of an election do not guarantee which party or parties will govern a state for the next five years. “Aaya Rams” are back with a vengeance more than fifty years after 1967, though whether they will metamorphose into “Gaya Rams” over time is still a moot point.

It is in this context that the recent statement at a conference by the Prime Minister endorsing the idea of “One Nation, One Election” and stating that this is not “just an issue of deliberation, but also the need of the country” has set the cat among the pigeons. No report on his speech has clarified whether “one election” is restricted to just parliament and state elections, though that is the inference we can draw for the present. The issues of expenditures on conducting elections every now and then and the impact of frequent elections on development works can be debated. What is more crucial are the implications of such a move for the federal nature of the Indian state. A state government does not draw its legitimacy from the central government, given that India is a Union of States, affirmed by no less sanctified a document than the Constitution of India. Issues that are prominent in state elections do not often figure on the national agenda. More importantly, in the absence of any provision to recall legislators, elections offer people the only opportunity to hold their representatives accountable. There is also the issue of the lack of predictability of the tenure of a Vidhan Sabha (or, indeed, of the Lok Sabha). Loss of majority of the ruling party or dissolution of the House could trigger fresh elections well before the due date. It would be well-nigh impossible, without major constitutional changes, to manage such contingencies were simultaneous elections to become the norm. I am not holding the simplistic view that simultaneous elections necessarily lead to the same party winning at both the state and central levels. But in recent years, there has been a marked tendency to highlight issues of nationalism and patriotism, with even the armed forces being dragged into election speeches. Playing on people’s emotions could skew results in state elections, especially where large sections of the electorate, including the so-called “educated middle class” have no nuanced understanding of the issues at stake, falling prey to the barrage of fake news streamed at them by social and electronic media. There is also the very likely danger that, given the opacity of the Electoral Bonds system, one party could garner a very high proportion of the funds donated, something that recently available information seems to corroborate.

But, above all, I value the festival of democracy characterised by elections at regular intervals at different levels of government, from the gram panchayat level up to the Lok Sabha. Having conducted and supervised elections at the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha and municipal levels, I have observed the coming to life of people who are otherwise immersed in the mundane chores of life, whether in Motihari, Muzaffarpur or Mumbai. The right to vote is an affirmation by the citizen of her dignity as an individual. She has the unfettered right to exercise her discriminating judgment each time there is an election, whether to the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha or local bodies, and the full authority to question those who seek to represent her on issues, be they national, state or local. She may be, in daily life, a domestic worker, nurse or shop salesperson. But come election time, she is the power behind the throne, determining the future of those who seek to govern the country or state. It would certainly be churlish to deny her her place in the sun for brief periods at regular intervals in a five year period. Why reduce it to just one time in five years, when governments spend money on so many unnecessary items? Nor are elections the main reason why governments function so inefficiently in executing development works. The ability to handle transfers of power without bloodshed is the mark of a mature democracy, no matter what the cost is in terms of time, energy or money.

Model Code of Conduct for elections – the use of cards

After nearly thirty years of participating in the conduct and supervision of Indian elections and observing elections at national, state and local levels since 1971, I am struck by the abyss into which debate has descended in the 2019 general elections as well as the open challenge thrown to the authority of the Election Commission of India by all political parties and candidates, especially the ruling party at the centre. What is even more dismaying than the “in your face” behaviour of the political class has been the servile responses of sections of the bureaucracy, the latter constituting, in my view, a far more serious threat to democratic norms.

Standards of decent discourse have virtually vanished from the Indian political firmament and the present elections confirm this depressing phenomenon. Humans have been classified as termites and sections of them have been threatened with expulsion from the country. Blatant appeals have been made to divisive religious sentiments and politicians have gone so far as to warn voters of the consequences of not voting for them. The sacrifices made by security forces are being made to serve as election fodder. Vicious personal attacks are the order of the day and serial offenders from previous elections are displaying their dubious talents freely. Equally galling has been the brazen promotion of a single personality through multiple media modes without any hint of embarrassment or concern for conventions. We have also been treated to the disgusting spectacle of a self-styled Sadhvi denigrating the memory of a police officer who lost his life in the Mumbai 26/11 attacks.

2019 also marks, in pronounced fashion, the entry of the disease of political partisanship into the bureaucracy. In previous elections, it was the normal practice to transfer officers who had done adequate time in their current postings as well as those perceived as unduly close to those in power. But the need to move officers at the topmost levels of the police and civil services after the election process got under way points to the rot in the steel frame. Three top functionaries of the NITI Aayog, the central government’s top policy think tank, have, through electronic and social media, expressed views and displayed achievements which have the effect of supporting the government of the day and downplaying its opponents. The NITI Aayog is reported to have asked district collectors, who are the fulcrum of the election process, to furnish information on the achievements in different government programmes for use by the Prime Minister in his election speeches. A serving Air chief makes a public statement about the Balakot air strike and, for good measure, also drags in the controversial Rafale aircraft into his observations. In a first for India’s highest bureaucracy, the attitude of its central Department of Revenue in not keeping the Election Commission apprised in advance of income tax raids on political personalities has been castigated by the Election Commission as “insolent”. To cap it all, a junior functionary of the Union Home Ministry wakes up from slumber after many years to ask the leader of the opposition Indian National Congress to prove his nationality. It almost makes one wonder whether government departments have been awakened like Kumbhakarna only at the time of electoral battle.

Even though the Model Code of Conduct has a moral rather than punitive force, Article 324 of the Constitution of India, backed by various Supreme Court rulings, gives the Election Commission wide powers to enforce its writ in grey areas where the law is silent. Taking an analogy from the game of field hockey, it makes sense to enforce the three card rule: a green card for minor fouls, a yellow card for more serious infractions (with suspensions for repeat offences) and a summary send-off on being shown a red card. The Election Commission should devise its own sets of cards, one set for unruly politicians and another set for errant bureaucrats.

The green card rule for politicians would involve censure of the offensive act with or without fine. This will not deter the “thick-skinned” among the tribe but would serve as a warning that their conduct is under close watch. Another offence would have the effect of moving them to the yellow card category, which could see bans on campaigning by the concerned individual, ranging from a few days to a total ban for the entire election period, depending on the gravity of the offence. The red card would come into play when the candidate/politician commits a really serious offence, like open incitement to violence or indulging in major criminal offences. It would involve the cancellation of elections in that particular constituency, with these elections being held a couple of months after the completion of the election process under close supervision of the Election Commission and with heavy deployment of security forces.

The bureaucracy’s “three card” rule would more or less conform to the disciplinary proceedings which are presently initiated against government personnel. Officials who are green-carded would be censured, the censure being reflected in their annual confidential reports, with impact on future promotions. The yellow card would involve imposition of punishments like withholding of pay increments for a certain period or reduction to a lower time-scale of pay, grade, post or service for a specified period (without cumulative effect). Major penalties (the “red card”) would range from loss of seniority to compulsory retirement to dismissal from service. Such action by the Election Commission would be taken in consultation with the concerned government, with confirmation by the appropriate Public Service Commission.

Of course, judicious and strict enforcement of the “three card” rule would require a strong and impartial referee who does not hesitate to blow the whistle when needed and to flash the relevant card. Sanctions against erring politicians/bureaucrats need to be promptly enforced to serve as a warning to potential transgressors. Most importantly, the teams (political parties/governments) themselves need to introspect on whether they should retain such players (politicians/bureaucrats). If all concerned do not abide by the rules of the game, elections will descend into anarchy, with the danger of the eventual demise of democracy.

No Shades Of Grey for India

I am not, as you might think, advocating the banning of the erotic book and film which have titles similar to the headline of this blog. But I am getting increasingly convinced that operating in grey areas is something Indians revel in. The new millennium has offered adequate proof that Indians abhor convention and thrive on discretion. While departing from the former allows for abominable behaviour even in the temples of Indian democracy, adhering like blood-sucking leeches to the latter enables the growth of the rent-seeking economy and polity. Where laws exist, bend them to suit oneself and one’s clan (even if discreetly) and, where they are silent, may the devil take the hindmost, decencies be damned.

Let us start with the legislatures, the roots of democracy in India. Over the last decade, we have seen the top two legislative organs of the country, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, apart from a number of state assemblies, being held hostage by elected representatives. Rushing to the well of the House, disrupting legislative business, indulging in fisticuffs and even grabbing the Speaker’s mace have been par for the course. A very far cry from the conventions in the British Houses of Parliament, where the Speaker’s word is law and where, once the Speaker has risen from her chair, all members on their feet must resume their seats. Of course, the farce commences even before the assembly commences its first sitting. Karnataka 2018 is its latest and most dramatic example. After a rather dubious decision by the Governor, the Supreme Court (SC) stepped in to order an immediate trust vote on the floor of the House. Flouting established convention, the Governor departed from the established procedure of appointing as pro tem Speaker the senior most elected member, generally from the opposition, to conduct the proceedings prior to election of the regular Speaker. This was obviously done to smoothen somewhat the winning of the trust vote by the newly sworn in Chief Minister (CM). Unfortunately, for the BJP, the SC fettered the discretion of the pro tem Speaker such that the CM had to resign within thirty-six hours of being sworn in.

But conventions have died a painful death in India over the years, assisted by constitutional functionaries. At the behest of whichever party is ruling at the centre, Governors of states have twisted the provisions of the Constitution of India, notably Article 356A, to help dismiss elected governments of a political hue different from the centre. As India steps squarely into the era of hung Parliaments/Assemblies and coalition governments, Karnataka and, before it, Goa, Manipur and many other instances represent the जिसकी लाठी उसकी भैंस (he who holds the stick controls the buffalo) mentality that dominates the Indian psyche. “Show me the Governor and I’ll show you the government” seems to be the prevailing motto. This blog does not have the space to go into the Sarkaria Commission recommendations on government formation in the states or the SC rulings in the SR Bommai and Rameshwar Prasad cases. But common sense would dictate that, after a tiring, costly election process, that government is sworn in which has the best chance of lasting the next five years. When the largest party falls well short of a majority and there are not enough independents and members of other small parties to help it cross the half-way mark, the logical course of action would be to invite post-poll coalitions of other parties, which have affirmed their joint intention of government formation, and give them a chance to prove their majority on the floor of the House. The Governor does have discretion but, as a functionary who has sworn to uphold the Constitution, (s)he is duty bound to act in a manner which does not reek of political partisanship.

Governments of all political persuasions have never been respecters of conventions. Recently, the Income Tax (IT) department raided the Badami (Karnataka) resort owned by an MLA-hopeful of the Congress during the election process. Nothing wrong in this, except the timing! Did the raids by the IT department and the subsequent attention supposedly lavished on him by the Enforcement Directorate have anything to do with his recent switch of loyalties from the BJP to the Congress? This worthy, after many twists and turns in the saga, appears to be as yet with the Congress, but who knows what the morrow brings? There were also disquieting media reports that loyalty of some MLAs was sought to be bought by promising leniency in investigation of economic offences in which they were allegedly involved. With the reputation of central investigative agencies already at an all-time low, efforts at their subornation are a cause for worry.

In the prevailing gloom over the functioning of the legislature and the executive, the performances of the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the SC give cause for cheer. In what was a bruising election, the ECI ensured the free exercise of franchise, though the role of muscle and money power in influencing voters is still a disease that requires remedy. The SC moved swiftly to check efforts to influence legislators and its eagle eye ensured that no attempts were made to monkey around with the trust vote process.

In the final analysis, however, it is the moral fibre of individuals that will determine the development of healthy practices in a democracy. We had the newly sworn in BJP CM of Karnataka announcing a farm loan waiver, transferring key police officials and seeking to augment his party’s strength in the trial of strength by nominating a legislator from the Anglo-Indian community (until restrained by the SC). We had the top legal functionary of the Central Government, the Attorney-General, foregoing his beauty sleep to appear in the predawn SC hearing and advancing ludicrous arguments that effectively encouraged horse-trading (man-trading??). We had the newly-elected MLAs apparently so vulnerable to inducements and threats that they had to be shepherded like preschool children, with no guarantee that they will not play truant in the coming months. To this date, government formation by the JD(S)-Congress combine has been bedeviled by the chase after lucrative portfolios. We had electronic media representatives treating this entire episode as a chess game and speculating on who will bring money and muscle to bear on government formation. And, finally, there is the ordinary citizen, inured to the reality that, to get ahead in life, you need to jump the red signal, help your wards cheat in examinations and part with mamool to grease your way through government. Where is the sense of shame and probity in all these individuals, and countless others? One senses no sadness or weariness in witnessing the repeated drama, just another Roman circus for the masses.

At least for the near future, we seem to be in a situation where it may be necessary to codify important conventions to get over the Indian aversion to following commonly accepted norms. There is already a code of conduct for elections. Similar codes need to be evolved for, among other things, procedures of government formation at the centre and in the states, conduct of legislative business, appointment of governors, powers of investigative agencies once elections have been announced and conduct of private activities of legislators that conflict with their public roles. These codes need to be implemented rigorously with salutary penalties for their infringement which could range from public shaming to loss of office.

However, nothing will really change until the educated thinking classes assume the responsibility for setting our derailed democracy back on the rails. Let us not forget that a diverse group of thinking Indians, seventy years ago, drafted one of the most glorious modern-day Constitutions. Keeping it alive, and enriching it further, is, alas, a task our present generation has failed in miserably. Karnataka is the latest manifestation of the terminal disease afflicting our democracy, which needs skilful doctors, not butchers. We ignore this at our own peril.

 

A sense of déjà vu

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I am rather fond of using this phrase, but only because the same patterns keep recurring like bad dreams in one’s life. The Karnataka state assembly elections have come and gone and we are back again to Ground Zero. The electorate has once more, in its wisdom, chosen not to anoint any one party as the clear victor, leaving the space open for fun and games. The ball is now in the court of the Governor of Karnataka to decide whom to invite to form the government. Sauce for the BJP goose is not going to be sauce for the Congress gander. No party is likely to emerge pristine white from this exercise over the next couple of weeks. The Congress missed the bus in Goa and Manipur in 2017, despite being the party which won the largest number of seats. It was not even invited by the respective Governors to form the government. Instead, the BJP was allowed to cobble together a motley assortment of partners and stake its claim to form the governments in these two states. At that time, the Congress went blue in the face screaming about the shenanigans in government formation and how its claims were ignored. Today, the same Congress is ready to go in for a shotgun marriage with the Janata Dal (Secular) (JD(S)) to hang on at least indirectly to power, even if it means ceding the king’s throne to its junior partner. Not that the BJP is any better. The same party which went hell for leather to seduce its partners last year is now sanctimoniously quoting the constitutional scriptures of the Governor being duty bound to invite the party which has won the largest number of seats.

As if this were not enough, we are left wondering how the numbers game will play out. Given the role that Governors have played in recent years, we need not be overly surprised if the Governor does indeed invite the largest party, the BJP, to have the first go at government formation. With 104 seats in the legislature, the BJP will need seven more legislators to support it when it has to prove its majority in the house in the near future. Partial support can come from three legislators, one of whom is an independent and two from smaller parties. But to win the trust vote, the BJP will still need to ensure that its 107 supporting legislators constitute 50 percent of the number of legislators present and voting. Presuming that the opposition parties issue a whip on the vote, the only way the BJP could win the trust vote would be for five or more opposition legislators to either absent themselves altogether or abstain from the voting process. To prevent such moral (and not so moral) suasion from occurring, the only way out for the Congress-JD(S) would be to sequester their flock at an appropriate location and produce them fresh and ready at the time of the trust vote.

Let us presume for a moment that the BJP loses the trust vote or that, wonder of wonders, the Governor actually invites the Congress-JD(S) to form the government and prove its majority. Even then, the Congress-JD(S) have to ensure that some of their legislators do not jump ship by resigning from legislatorship and introducing uncertainty regarding the future of their government. The memories of “Operation Kamala 2008” must still be touching a raw nerve in these two parties.

So, the resort to resorts will continue. As an old Maharashtra hand, I still remember vividly the coup attempted in 2002 by the BJP-Shiv Sena against the Congress-NCP Vilasrao Deshmukh government in Maharashtra. The Congress legislators (and some independents) had to be spirited away from Maharashtra to a resort on the outskirts of Bengaluru. That Bengaluru continues to be the favourite last resort of the Congress was proved yet again in 2017, when 44 Congress legislators from Gujarat had to be housed here prior to Rajya Sabha elections to prevent them succumbing to the insidious charms of the BJP. History is now set to repeat itself yet again: do you wonder now why I find this exercise repetitive and not a little nauseating?

Actually, the entire Karnataka election process followed the time-honoured pattern. All parties fell over each other nominating candidates with dubious track records, many having criminal cases pending against them. No candidate from the three major political parties campaigned on the specific plank of addressing issues germane to the electorate, whether these related to agriculture, law and order, food security or health care. In any case, the healthy yesteryear habit of house to house campaigning has long been abandoned; in the current elections, probably only the AAP and Swaraj India candidates adopted this approach. Cash, liquor and other freebies are rumoured to have been freely distributed to win votes.

I am not one of those who subscribe to the view that state funding of elections is going to cleanse the Augean stables of electoral corruption. With governance processes still hugely dependent on discretion, and distribution of scarce resources — land, housing, licences, contracts, etc. — centrally controlled by the politico-bureaucratic nexus, elections to political bodies, whether at central, state or local levels, represent the pathway to self-aggrandisement and enriching one’s clan. Making local area funds available to elected representatives has only enabled distribution of patronage to a larger group of cronies. Even moving to a system of proportional representation will not solve this problem: the same worthies will find place in the lists of all political parties.

A change for the better will be possible only when:

  • Elected representatives at the central and state levels confine themselves to enacting legislation and lobbying for public/private projects in their constituencies rather than having any direct role in disbursing patronage in the form of funds or other scarce resources;
  • The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution are implemented in letter and spirit and financial and administrative powers are genuinely devolved to rural and urban local bodies;
  • Patronage at ministerial level, especially in the state secretariats, ceases;
  • Strong anti-corruption ombudsman structures at the centre and in the states, with powers of investigation and prosecution, are created;
  • Corruption cases are fast-tracked and completed within two years of institution so that the fear of early retribution exists, especially in the political class;
  • Inner-party democracy is made mandatory through legislation, so that political parties cease to be the fiefdom of individuals and families.

I am not sanguine about good sense prevailing on our political representatives to implement the above reforms. Till such time as these come about, we will continue to be “entertained” by political drama. To paraphrase Marie Antoinette “If they don’t have jobs, let them have circuses.” O Tempora! O Mores!

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

You may be wondering why I am resurrecting a schmaltzy 1967 American rom-com movie, fifty years after we saw it on screens in India. True, it played on the theme of interracial marriage, so relevant in these days of “love jihad”. But that is not why I dwell on the guest who is coming to dinner. I am intrigued, and not a little amused, by the recent directive from the Prime Minister, no less, to his party MPs and Ministers to dine with Dalit families. That, more than seventy years after independence and after the enactment of a progressive Constitution that enjoins the virtues, among others, of equality and fraternity, elected representatives who represent all citizens, including its disadvantaged poor, have to be issued a firman to break rotis with those traditionally beyond the pale of the caste system is a telling commentary on the deep cleavages that still fissure Indian society.

What strikes me as ludicrous is that those representing the people have to be told to interact with them. Recent months have seen stories of Chief Ministers, belonging to the dispensation ruling at the centre, eating at Dalit houses. We have been fed with salacious details of how plates, food and water were organised from outside so that the VIP could be captured on celluloid enjoying his victuals in the Dalit house. A very recent news report has detailed the elaborate exercise of a ruling party MP dining at a Dalit house. This former civil service colleague took to politics after a career in the civil services. I wondered whether he didn’t find this entire exercise unreal, given the interaction that civil servants get to have with all sections of society in the course of travels across villages and towns during their working years.

From personal experience, my extensive travels across Maharashtra have taken me to tribal habitations, Dalit vastis and urban slums. I have been privileged to be the guest of poor families, who have shared tea (often without milk), poha and any other food item in the house with the unexpected guest. Many politicians I have known have also accepted food and drink readily during their tours, without bothering about the caste, religion or social status of their hosts. Which is why I find it inexplicable that a national political party finds it necessary to impose a diktat on its party men (and women) to interdine with members of a particular social group. Does this imply that, over the past four years, these peoples’ representatives have given the cold shoulder to the poor and disadvantaged, to the extent of not even visiting their humble dwellings and sharing chai-biskut with them?

What I find more reprehensible are the accounts of apparently stage-managed dinners. There have been reports of meals at certain locations being organised from outside the Dalit vasti, although the actual consumption by the VIP took place in a Dalit home. More to the point, the visits to the Dalit habitations, whether by a Chief Minister, Minister, MP or MLA, do not often see any tangible improvement in the living conditions of local residents, partly because of the poor governance and infrastructure systems in place and more so because of the lack of opportunities for benefiting from economic growth processes.

That such publicised dinner visits reek of symbolism is one of the unfortunate spinoffs of such exercises, captured beautifully by the inimitable Hemant Morparia in a recent cartoon.

While there are many sincere politicians at different levels, there is no denying that, in the race for one upmanship that politics, in India and elsewhere, has descended to, photo opportunities are used to advance ones’ reputation in the eyes of those who matter, especially in these days of Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. It would be extremely heartening if the visit by a Minister / MP / MLA was followed up with intensive efforts to address the shortcomings in delivery of public services that were observed during the visit. Unfortunately, such visits tend to be one-off instances, restricted to mentions in the press and reports to political superiors on one’s efforts, spectacle rather than substance.

The other issue of concern is the widening gulf between the elected representatives and their electorate. Sighting an MP/MLA in the constituency between two elections is akin to spotting a black swan. Why, even getting to see the local corporator on the streets is a rarer occurrence than seeing a blue moon. MPs/MLAs, many of whom do not even regularly stay in the constituencies that elected them, have no system of judging the extent to which they are meeting the specific requests of their constituents (with honourable exceptions like Shashi Tharoor and Jay Panda). The result is a growing disillusionment and cynicism in the electorate, which looks to extract short-term benefits near election time, a dangerous trend in a democracy.

Having reached the ranks of the senior citizenry some time back, I feel entitled to offer my two bits of advice to MPs and MLAs.  Firstly, do try to leave your constituency looking somewhat better than when you first got elected. Insist on certain standards of efficient public service delivery, especially in the areas of health care, education and food security. It is saddening to see the ramshackle state of the public health services, ICDS and public distribution systems in constituencies that have been the pocket boroughs of particular individuals or families for years on end. Use technology to monitor processes and outcomes and develop a cadre of local youth who can facilitate the reach of basic services to the public, particularly the poor and disadvantaged.

Secondly, please use your term(s) in elected office to meaningfully contribute to the passage of effective laws that improve the economic and social conditions of your fellow citizens. This will require less of rushing to the well of the legislature and disrupting business to drive home some inane political agenda. Let me assure you that the public is heartily sick of these shenanigans and, at the first availability of a suitable substitute, will boot you out of office.

Thirdly, make it a habit to spend at least two or three days a week travelling to every area of your constituency. You have over 1800 days in office, enough to cover most villages and towns in your area. Drop in unannounced into homes, preferably in the late evenings, when you can meet with families and groups and share their joys and sorrows, as well as understand their grievances. Forget the meals, sharing a cup of tea, where you pour half the sweet concoction from the cup into a saucer and offer the latter to your host, will create a bond between you. Will this guarantee your reelection? Sadly not, elections are won and lost on a host of other considerations — religion, caste, emotions and money power. But you will have the enduring satisfaction of having participated in the lives of your less fortunate fellow women and men, giving them the strength to live another day, month and year to fight the ongoing battles of their lives.

 

The American Nightmare

This presidential hopeful called Trump

Into politics has made a big jump

His speeches loquacious

Are truly audacious

And may lead to an American slump

The American Dream has seduced millions across the world, ever since the docking of the Mayflower in Provincetown Harbor in 1620 and the establishment of the first settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts. In recent years, the dream started souring with the 2008 meltdown and a gridlocked Congress which could never agree on legislation. The aftermath of 9/11 also saw the growth of a xenophobic distrust of certain categories of human beings, typified by humiliating airport searches and surveillance of those who did not fit into the neat, comfortable definition of “us”. But never in their wildest dreams would most Americans have ever visualised that a rank pretender to the post of the President of America would not only secure the Republican Party nomination but also be in serious contention for the top job come the eighth of November. Like a master bridge player, Donald has Trumped his Republican opponents and virtually rewritten the rules of political debate. The American Dream is giving way to the American Nightmare, with likely precipitous consequences not only for that nation but for the rest of the world as well.

The bruising election campaign is symptomatic of the strains America has gone through in the first fifteen years of the twenty first century. The nearly two century old Monroe Doctrine has been tested in North America only twice, the first time when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. The second attack of 9/11 was the first assault on mainland America, with the emphasis moving from state to non-state actors. Since that fateful day, America has seen a gradual, creeping erosion of her preeminent political and economic status, which seemed to have been secured after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have ended in bloody stalemates and laid the foundations for even more bitter conflicts across the Middle East. Syrian refugees pour into Europe, straining the social fabric of the countries on that continent. The Arab Spring has turned into winter. The Islamic State is still to be comprehensively subdued. And terrorism has truly become a decentralised, cottage industry, when any person with a warped ideological mindset can lay his (and increasingly her) hands on weapons of mass destruction to wreak havoc on unsuspecting (but increasingly fearful) populations.

But it would be naive to believe that the rise and rise of Donald Trump is reflective of only recent trends in the popular mood. In her seminal work “The Authoritarian Dynamic”, Australian academic Karen Stenner has underlined the importance of the prevalence of an “authoritarian predisposition” among segments of a population that extends beyond animosity to just one group, ideology or evolving social value. This predisposition is latent in the individual when economic and social conditions seem stable but is activated when a normative threat is perceived. It then manifests itself in three forms of intolerance — racial (fuelled by ethnic or religious diversity), political (against dissent, as expressed by divergent views) and moral (opposed to deviance in sexuality-related or other issues pertaining to morality). The authoritarian individual’s threat perception is particularly activated by the lack of consensus in society (as reflected in widely varying views on political, social and economic issues) and a loss of faith in the ability of politicians and the prevailing political system and institutions to manage and minimise these differences. This “American authoritarian prototype” (white-male-Protestant-heterosexual) constitutes the core of Trump supporters and its genesis predates Trump’s entry into the political arena.

Since the end of the Second World War, America has been a participant in theatres of armed conflict in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. The less than successful interventions in the new millennium in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East have punctured the myth of American armed invincibility. The Iraq invasion exposed the duplicity and lying of the American political elite as they capitalised on the fear psychosis created by 9/11 to promote narrow partisan interests. The “open society” was riven by suspicion and mistrust, even as accounts of use of extrajudicial measures and human rights violations against prisoners of war created disquiet amongst thinking, sensitive sections of the US public.

It took almost one hundred years after the end of a civil war waged to abolish black slavery to formalise the equal status of blacks in the USA through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While this legislation has been followed in letter (if not always in spirit), the American authoritarian prototype has never really reconciled to the loss of his erstwhile superior, separate status. The growing presence of blacks in the government and private sectors, including at increasingly higher levels, has raised the hackles of especially those of their white brethren who have lost out in the education and employment sweepstakes. The ascension to the top job in 2008 of a black man only served to reinforce this bitterness and brought to the top the latent anti-black prejudice, as witnessed by the cheap slander of the incumbent President’s personal life and consistent efforts to derail his policies.

The icing on the cake came with the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008. Virtually overnight, working class families were plunged in debt with severe erosion in asset values. The credibility of politicians hit a new low with the common perception that Wall Street got away with murder, thanks to a sympathetic government in Washington, DC. Add to this the fear of loss of jobs to Chinese, Indians and those from a host of emerging economies and you have a situation tailor-made for the appearance of a demagogue: Trump stepped into the breach, virtually hijacking the Republican nomination. Americans have now reached a position where voting for either candidate is seen as a choice between “the devil and the deep blue sea.” Neither is seen as having the ability to heal the growing fissures and discontent in American society, Trump because of his extreme positions on minorities, the economy and foreign policy, and Clinton, because of her perceived links to a tainted political and financial establishment.

Many commentators see the implications of this “authoritarian predisposition” extending well beyond just the current election. If Trump wins, it is extremely doubtful if he will be able to walk his talk, but the continued use of a divisive and demagogic approach to issues will cause irreparable damage to the social fabric of the world’s longest-existing democracy. If Clinton wins, but her Democratic Party fails to gain control of the two Houses of Congress, the US will go through another phase of paralysis in policy-making at a time when it faces global challenges on various fronts. Even if her Presidency is accompanied by Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress, civil strife could still be a grim reality, given the rising assertiveness of the black minority, the reality of joblessness for the less-educated white population and the evolution of unipolar challenges to America’s dominance on the world economic and political stage.

Just over a hundred years ago, on the eve of the First World War, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey presciently observed “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”. Europe is going through the throes of an existential crisis today with the very idea of a liberal democratic system, founded on pluralism, free speech and diversity, being questioned: the Brexit saga was just one of its manifestations. The virus is spreading across continental Europe, exacerbated by the Syrian refugee crisis. Its existence in the New World across the Atlantic shows the resilience of this strain, with the credulous belief that a “strong man” can solve all the problems confronting citizens today. Karen Stenner reaches a rather sobering conclusion in her book “If there are inherent predispositions to intolerance of difference…and if those predispositions are actually activated by the experience of living in a vibrant democracy, then freedom feeds fear that undermines personal freedom, and democracy is its own undoing”.  Even the political scientist Francis Fukuyama who, in his book “The End of History and the Last Man”, had been optimistic, in the heady years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, of the prospects for the universal spread of liberal democracy has qualified his optimism by expressing doubts as to whether, having reached the liberal democratic destination, citizens might not again look for new political arrangements. The USA, in 1776, acted as a beacon on the democratic road taken by other countries: we can only hope that 2016 does not set humankind on an altogether different, destructive path.