Waiting for Godot: When will we see election reform?

We are about to be rudely reminded of the exhilarating power of our vote in a perfectible, but not yet perfect, Democracy. That precious right, which Democracy doles out to those of us above a certain age, is set to determine the future of the States which went to elections recently. Subsequently, in those States, poverty will be wiped out, religious divides will vanish, education will be available to all and some weavers may get some more subsidies.

What utter and complete baloney!

For some additional entertainment, we may also be treated to the dysfunctional manic-depressive behavior of the Nifty over the next few days, as it watches the dance of courtship which is currently on in Uttar Pradesh. Crude, Iran and Greece will yield pride of place to UP for a brief while, as far as the bourses are concerned.

And just think! It was your vote that caused it all!

Other than for casting a vote, what part do voters play in India? Reuters

By April, annoying facts pertaining to gross abuse of power, will fall by the wayside once the Political machinery starts humming in these States. The spin-doctoring, political vendettas and blatant misrepresentation and obfuscation of facts will assume centre-stage; and we the people, will resume our collective ain’t-it-awful-but-what-can-can-we-do stance. Occasionally, we will erupt in child-like glee when another Politician bites the dust and is put on the bus to Tihar.

On balance though, for the voters and the citizens, the positives will outweigh the negatives. And for that, I am expected to be eternally grateful. I am! Ah, the power of the Vote, the wonder of democracy, the exaltation of criminals – nay, some criminals - who have been elected to august houses; the Government for a few, by a few, of a few. Like I said, eternally grateful.

What a wonderful little system of making us feel a part of something when in reality our stake is limited to walking to the neighborhood polling booth every few years. EVM punched, we are then supposed to shut up and sit quietly in our little corner of the world for the next few years, watching institutionalized loot and plunder. When the angst gets too much to bear, we are offered the cathartic choice of lapping up a few reports, debates and columns, thanks to the media, which highlight rampant criminalization of, and corruption in, politics. When frustration and disgust peaks, you can always print a few placards using office stationery, don some i-am-anna caps and rabble-rouse a bit – you have that option as well.

But is there a way out of this mess?

Yes and No! Yes, because Electoral Reforms as a concept first touched the Indian Political landscape in what is the known as the Tarkunde Committee Report. Even a blind and pessimistic squirrel can find a nut now and then.
No, because this report is dated 1975. Nineteen Seventy-friggin-five ?!

This 1975 report dealt largely with issues pertaining to the authority, accountability, appointment process, tenure and powers of the Chief Election Commissioner. A modest beginning, some would call it. The maladies and distortions in our Election landscape are widely believed to have made their maiden appearance in 1971, in the 5th General Elections. And between then and now, there have been multiple reports and recommendations on the issue of Electoral Reforms.

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Other than a few cosmetic and ineffective changes to the rules of engagement (anti-defection; a form here and an affidavit there, to capture criminal antecedents of candidates; declaration of assets etc), these documents have led to very little meaningful progress or reforms. The evidence in support of the case that the Politicians have been sincerely trying to clean up the Electoral System, despite the well-meaning observations and recommendations of bureaucrats, academicians, legal luminaries, simply does not stack up.

What is heartening to note though, as one goes through some of these beautifully constructed documents, is the rigorous approach these reports display towards the proposed clean-up of Politics as a Profession. These reports pull no punches, are devoid of euphemisms and hit home hard on several key issues pertaining to all three stages of the Electoral Process: the pre, the actual process and the post.

“More than 700 of the 4072 legislators in states have some criminal records against them” noted Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan (President, Loksatta Party) in a paper on Electoral Reforms in 2002. The ratio, I suspect, has worsened since.“Candidates leave some of the columns blank “, while disclosing information on the nomination forms/affidavits, and provide “grossly undervalued information, mainly about their assets”, notes another important paper on this subject by T.S.Krishna Murthy (Chief Election Commissioner, 2004).

He goes on to propose some measures to deal with the rampant criminalization of politics, wrapping it up by stating that such measures “would go a long way in cleansing the political establishment from the influence of criminal elements and protecting the sanctity of the Legislative Houses”.

“Large expenditure” incurred by political candidates during the election process “does not guarantee victory; but inability to incur huge expenses almost certainly guarantees defeat” states the Electoral & Political Party Reforms in India white paper, Feb 2011.So next time, let us be careful when we mock the cynics with a “why don’t you stand for elections, you sorry cretin” snide comment.

Disrobing of the King done, most of these reports then proceed to lay down elaborate processes which can restore some dignity to the Electoral Process.

The Goswami Committee Report (1990), Indrajit Gupta Committee Report (1998), Vohra Committee Report (1993), The Second Administrative Reforms Commission Report (2008), The Background Paper On Electoral Reforms (2010) and a few other seminal papers (some sponsored by, hold your breath, politicians themselves) on the subject of Electoral Reforms are so well structured and insightful, that it reinforces my faith that there are a few good men out there, in the Establishment, who do intend to cleanse the system. I leave the reasons and motives for inaction on these Reports by the Political Class for you to figure out….

As per my limited knowledge, Temples of Democracy in India have no known powers of alchemy. So much so for taking base personalities, and hoping for their wondrous transmogrification into precious noble souls after they are elected! On the contrary, these temples are perfect examples of the GIGO syndrome – Garbage In Garbage Out. And the place to start is, perhaps, ensuring that there are enough checks and balances in place, to minimize the probability of Garbage getting INTO the system.

My biggest fear: like Vladimir and Estragon, are we Waiting For Godot?

Or is there another Anna Hazare, imperfect yet effective, lurking in the dark shadows of extreme disenchantment, to bail our apathy-laden collective derrieres out?
Or wait…. one fine day, the Politicians will take a collective decision to cleanse the system themselves, without any pressure from outside? Jez kiddin!

Published Date: Mar 05, 2012 12:01 pm | Updated Date: Mar 05, 2012 12:01 pm