The Great Indian Electoral Tamasha
Governmental elections all over the world are quite important an affair in the sense that such elections satisfy the constitutional demand for a head of state, or that of a federal unit, to be elected on grounds of popular consensus. In India, electoral seasons are quite a spectacle to behold- from the campaigning process to the declaration of results, everything seems to be over very swiftly without noticeable friction. The caution, however, is that it so appears when examined from the wider lens. On panning into the depths of the electoral process in India, we find several anomalies in the entire activity.
In India, elections are held at the national level and at the state levels- called the General elections and the State elections, respectively. This entire polling process is conducted and monitored by a Constitutionally authorized independent body, the Central Election Commission, whose primary responsibility lies in the conduct of ‘free and fair elections’ on the basis of Universal Adult Franchise. Unfortunately, despite the best of efforts from the Commission in recent times, elections are hardly fair to the last vote. Elections nowadays are mostly associated with graphic displays of violence, bombings and intimidation cases. Saddest of them all, is perhaps the attempt to hijack the very process itself- through practice of rigging. It is an open secret that such attempts to deface the primary pillar of democracy is clandestinely supported by politicians themselves. The problem is, the evidence trail is cut off most of the times. Raking up religious sentiments looks to be the new norm of the day; and no one is batting an eyelid over it. Over thirty percent of the people’s representatives in the Lok Sabha have criminal cases stacked against them. Illiterate hordes with rich family backgrounds have also appeared in the foray: all these are cumulatively adding up to pull our entire democracy in the reverse gear.
Political funding in India is highly opaque. In 2014, a non-profit organisation Global Integrity, ranked India on 42nd position out of 54 countries, assessing each nation by their transparency metrics. In fact, India even ranks 6 ranks lower than its neighbour Pakistan. Despite introduction of a law by the Finance Minister to replace cash donations by electoral bonds, the cardinal loophole still exists- that of anonymous donations. While the cash limit has been decreased from Rs. 20,000/- to Rs. 2000/-, the very introduction of such anonymous electoral bond purchase defeats the purpose of the move to ensure transparency. This was reiterated by the former Chief Election Commissioner, O.P. Rawat, who demitted office on 1st December, 2018.
It would perhaps be a farce to write on the vices surrounding Indian elections without mentioning the criminal track records of candidates and elected legislators. A staggering figure of 34% of India’s Lok Sabha MPs have criminal cases lodged against their names- from rioting to murder- and everything in between (Vaishnav 2017). What is shocking is that candidates with criminal antecedents have an 18% chance of winning the poll than fresh and clean rivals- who stand a meek 6%. Muscle power and money, thereby, influences the election process in a big way. India’s elevation of lawbreakers to lawmakers is thus no short of an interesting story.
Literacy rates amongst legislators are alarming to say the least. The sixteenth Lok Sabha features six Members of Parliament who have not even completed their matriculation courses. Such a want for literacy at the highest levels of democracy effectively creates a void for constructive participation in debates that arise in the Lower House. This statistic is worse for the Vidhan Sabhas; where illiterate MLAs abound in considerable numbers. Among such states, Haryana, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh feature prominently. An absence of criteria outlining the basic educational qualifications of candidates is a major hurdle. There simply seems to be no political will in amending such a trend.
Ever since 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi ascended the chair of the Prime Minister, a wave of Hindutva nationalism has swept across the country. Religious minorities have been openly threatened and persecuted. Even caste held no bars as stories of oppression and humiliation of the Dalits poured in from every corner. This gave rise to violent clashes in Maharashtra, where the tensions ran high. Politicians from right-wing parties and members of the fringe outfits have found that religion is easily saleable to the masses to garner votes: and the trick has worked time and again. Inflammatory statements made by local politicians to gain votes in the short run bring about deep communal divides that are near impossible to repair. The Muzzafarpur riots is a good example for such a blatant promotion of religious hatred, which left in its aftermath 62 dead and a total of 50,000 people displaced.
Despite such a venomous electoral atmosphere, positive mends are being made, or at least, being sought for. In September, 2018, the Supreme Court hauled up the Central Government, asking the Union to frame adequate and necessary laws to ensure complete decriminalisation of politics. Earlier, the Election Commission had made it mandatory to declare the criminal antecedents before filing nomination for elections. There is also a general agreement on the fact that India needs to amend its academic qualification requirements for candidates contesting the elections. After all, a lawmaker who does not understand the subtle discourse of crucial agendas is no good to legislate in the first place. In Abhiram Singh v/s CD Commachen (2017) the judiciary also barred the use of religion, caste, and language as a means to appeal the voters. This was a positive and welcome move. There is also a constant pressure on the government to make the process of political funding open, and anonymous donations must not be entertained.
While steps are being taken to ensure the dream of realising free elections in the truest sense of the term; we are probably staring several decades away when the electoral process in India would be free of taint. For now, ensuring the clean up of the existing lot of mess is much more important than bringing in more candidates with questionable backgrounds.