The Budget session of Parliament has gone into a month’s recess. We will be spared the low-brow theatrics and Surpanakha cackles that are the demeaning leitmotif of Parliamentary proceedings. The Presiding Officers, routinely targeted as partisan by the Opposition, by turns cajoled and sought to shame the “honourable” Members into more becoming behaviour with “the nation-is-watching” line but none of it worked. In exasperation they resorted to frequent adjournments.
This has by now assumed near farcical proportions and signals a debilitating dysfunctionality, but one that remains unconscionably unattended. An apathetic and willful copout is how best it can be described. The same holds true for the highly publicised walk-outs by the aggrieved Members, their mandatory dharnas and torso-shows in front of the towering statue of Gandhiji outside Sansad Bhavan, totally unmindful of how unkindly he would view them. To the aam janata, they are wasteful.
For the Prime Minister to be heckled during the debate on the Motion of Thanks to the President’s Address was an all-time low. The disruptors evidently thought it kosher and displayed a rare unity in pulling it off. To have the well-orchestrated show dubbed as “undemocratic” by the Government was not far off the mark, yet supremely ironical, it being the most frequently used jibe of the opposition to unfailingly pound the party in power with. The sanctum sanctorum of Indian democracy stood undeniably diminished yet again, at a cost both to public trust and the public exchequer.
In this disheartening backdrop of ugly warts and the upcoming slew of state elections, leading up to the General Election, can be tracked tentative moves to cobble together, what is referred to euphemistically as a rainbow coalition to take on the Government. How does the opposition see itself in its new avatar? A mere replacement? A lazy UPA redux? Repeats of failed khichdi sarkars of the 1990s would be unmitigated disasters. Unsurprisingly, these remain in the fuzzy realm of academic speculation, being very early days. Nonetheless it is important to engage about them so that the electorate is not shortchanged as invariably happens, election after election.
The energising impetus for the coming together was undeniably the Gujarat election where the BJP victory was more of a serious drubbing and the Congress defeat a welcome leg up. The lead was taken by the politically agile and astute NCP strongman, Sharad Pawer, in the Samvidhaan Bachao (Save the Constitution) rally in Mumbai to coincide with Republic Day.
However, he had to very soon ~ and predictably so ~ yield space to Sonia Gandhi. The Congress, loyal as ever, was quick to remind him that she continued to be the helmsperson of the UPA.
Trashing rumours of semi-retirement after the much-delayed coronation of Rahul Gandhi, Sonia convened a meeting on 1 February which was attended by 17 “like-minded” opposition parties. Biggies Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati were conspicuous by their absence but that did not dent the enthusiasm ~ tepid at best ~ to incinerate the ideology of hate and delink national issues from State conflicts, however fanciful the latter may have sounded. There will, no doubt, be captivating highlights and sidelights as the unspooling of another likely mahagatbandhan happens, at an unknowable pace. Derek O’Brien, Trinamil MP, provided a whiff of them when he came up with his UPSC-style essential qualifications for the future Prime Minister, tailor-made to suit his boss, who now has a new moniker of Lady Gandhi (not to be confused with Sonia Gandhi) courtesy a swooning Hardik Patel.
The mega battle of the ballot has begun in real earnest. Ambitions are soaring. Opportunistic deals are waiting to take unprincipled shape. All stops will be pulled out to grab the crown, which appears tantalizingly close. Cynically put, political parties now, more than ever before, are only required to prove their worth as unbeatable electoral winning machines, manifestos and citizens’ well-being be damned. Master strategists in war rooms oversee planning exercises to ensure thumping majorities. Global smart practices ~ as distinct from best practices ~ are pulled in for good measure.
While it is correct to affirm that the electorate is discerning and well-informed, there are indisputable pointers towards abuse of money power, innovative sidestepping of the model code of conduct and expenditure caps, manipulative leveraging of societal fissures and intimidation by charge-sheeted persons/ convicts, also known as contesting candidates, who carry significant clout based on their winnability quotient.
The Election Commission of India could arguably turn this moment, defined by ambivalence and drift, to craft another glorious chapter for itself. It could bring the primary focus back on the people who are at the core of the democratic edifice and empower them ~ and itself ~ to hold public representatives to account, right from the start of the electoral process to completion of their tenure in public office. Going beyond periodic electoral carnivals, impressive as they are, is an imperative that cannot be ignored.
The last year has been a rough one for ECI, with the EVM controversy, inexplicably delayed announcement of the Gujarat polls and the contested disqualification of AAP legislators. The Supreme Court is hearing a PIL seeking directions to decriminalize politics. In its affidavit ECI has ruled that it has no explicit powers under the Representation of People’s Act, 1951, for deregistration of a political party and has been in correspondence with the Government since 1998, but to no avail. Several of its other proposals on electoral reform are likewise getting increasingly pollution or dust-coated in government warrens.
It is not that electoral reforms have been completely lost sight of. What has been actioned is related to Electoral Bonds, which according to written submissions of the ECI to the Parliamentary Standing Committee would in reality compromise transparency in political funding. More striking is the strong pitch for a return to simultaneous elections at different levels, which has been on the cards since the ECI’s suggestion in 1983, backed by many reports thereafter. The President, in his Address to the two Houses, made a special mention of it, as did the Prime Minister. While supporting the step, the ECI has flagged constitutional and other logistical issues in its implementation and advised wide consultation. Importantly, massive in scope though it is, it does not take head-on many of the infirmities of our democracy referenced above and ought not be rushed.
Much more crucial is enhancing the capabilities of the people to abort grand alliances of expediency and checkmate institutionalised, long-term subversion of their needs and aspirations. India ought not to bear the blemish of a “flawed democracy” in the Global Democracy Index. The efforts to erase it should be at par ~ if not above ~ those directed at improving rankings in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” and hopefully, merge into the Prime Minister’s vision of “Ease of Living”. Is the ECI up to the challenge?
The writer is a retired IAS officer and comments on governance issues.