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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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