Friday, May 2, 2014

Do elections ensure democracy?

In a competitive bid to bare each other’s dirty linen this election season, political parties have raised the ghosts of 1984’s Sikh massacres and 2002’s Muslim pogroms. Each party claims that the other is guilty, but as for itself, it has been given, in that peculiarly Indian phrase, a ‘clean chit’.  

Mr. Modi tells us he will be found innocent in the “people’s court”,  and was “waiting to hear their verdict”.  Clearly Mr. Modi has no regard for any other kind of court, least of all a constitutionally appointed judiciary. He is not alone in this - every major political party seems to believe that winning elections is an alternative to judicial accountability.

The one point where Mr. Modi is right, of course, is when he asks “What is the system of pardoning people through apology?” The Congress has tried to apologise its way out of 1984, as if that’s all it took to repair devastated lives. In Bastar, the Congress candidate, Deepak Karma admitted the Salwa Judum was a mistake, even as he was given a ticket precisely because he was Mahendra Karma’s son, a man who pillaged his way through his own people.

The word that is curiously missing in all this is ‘justice’.

When liberal commentators tell us that we need not fear for India’s democratic institutions under Modi, one wonders which institutions they are referring to. In truth, almost every major “pillar” of Indian democracy - political parties, the media, the judiciary, even the electoral system – has been rendered so fragile over the years, that it will not need too drastic a push to render them impotent. Already people have begun to censor themselves, to ‘balance’ their previous criticism with high praise, and to urge forgiveness for 2002 as if it was theirs to forgive.

Almost all the major political parties are headed by individuals whose personalities outweigh any institutional process. For long, the BJP prided itself on its collective decision-making, but that is clearly a thing of the past. Modi appears larger than life, especially to himself, with his narcissistic illeism or references to himself in the third person. It is hardly surprising that his immediate model is Indira Gandhi. Not only do we have the Emergency era promise that he will make the trains run on time, but like her, one of the first things he has done is destroy his own party. Just as the Congress has never recovered from Indira, it is hard to imagine what a post-Modi BJP might look like.

The media is a player in the electoral process, rather than a watchdog of democracy. Oiled by some 5000 crores of media spend by the BJP alone, quite apart from the more cleverly concealed paid news, it is hardly an impartial mirror to the elections. The “news” as it comes to us is an endless repetition of x ‘slammed’ y, y denied z, with none of the parties being forced to provide a clear vision on the important questions facing the country like the environment, job creation, health or education.  The social media is not an alternative, given the symbiotic relationship it has with mainstream media, with the same personalities and issues dominating in both. Of course there are some important exposes and many brave journalists, but it is precisely because of them that the more substantial propaganda functions of the media get by.

Even if ministers who swear on the Constitution when taking oath forget the basic principle of a separation of powers, the judiciary has not performed too well either in calling politicians to account. Some of this may be due to the enormous burden of cases that the Courts face, but if ten, even thirty years on, the victims of 1984, 2002, Pathribal, Salwa Judum or the Kandhamals  remain without justice, surely the judiciary cannot escape blame. In a wonderful essay, the English historian Douglas Hay shows how 18th century courts consolidated a belief in the impartiality of law, even at a time when the laws were changed to expropriate peasants and capital punishment was freely prescribed for crimes against property. A few good judgments, a few capital pardons, and a few rich men hanged were enough to make people believe in the majesty and mercy of the law. Little has changed up to the 21st century.

The electoral system is held hostage to money and to the first past the post system. A recent analysis in the Times of India based on the 2009 Lok Sabha figures showed that barely 22% of MPs polled more than 50% of the votes cast. Given that 60% is considered a high voting rate, most winning candidates actually have the support of very small minorities in their constituency. The EC is a remarkable institution, but its omnipotence during elections and the fact that it is not always right in its judgment, shows up some of the deeper biases in the electoral system. Door to door campaigning which is the preferred option of the poor is banned just before voting, but full page newspaper advertisements which invade one’s home on polling day are not.

The AAP certainly provides hope that democracies can throw up surprises. However, the very fact that many AAP candidates  - activists, lawyers, journalists and even corporates -  are contesting because they feel that they can change the system only through politics, tells us how poorly other professions fare.

It is time we stopped expecting elections to deliver democracy by themselves, and woke up to the state of our institutions. Whoever wins, they may be tested so much that they may not pass.