As the Election Commission (EC) completes another round of elections with record polling in several states, it is not easy to ignore a growing paradox in India’s electoral process. Election after election is now conducted with the kind of predictable efficiency not always managed even by some advanced democracies. However difficult the terrain, the voting process typically takes place quite smoothly. Results are widely accepted, even when the margins are wafer-thin. Yet the process is not without serious flaws. It’s no secret that votes are bought and that some voters believe it’s their right to receive liquor from political parties.
The instinctive response is to demand that the EC tighten the norms and enforce them. In fact, the EC has had considerable success in removing serious shortcomings in the actual voting process. Booth-capturing, once common, has largely been done away with. But success is still some distance away when it comes to tackling behind-the-scenes activities such as cornering votes by distributing liquor or cash to voters the night before an election. The EC hasn’t yet found a way to keep a thirsty voter from the liquor lavished on him by a candidate or a political party.
The reason for the uneven success is easy to spot: where voters see a stake in supporting the EC’s initiatives, such as preventing booth-capturing, there’s a greater chance of success; in some other illegal activities, though, such as selling their votes or accepting liquor in exchange for their votes, voters may not see things the way the EC does. They might well believe that if direct cash transfers from the government are the way to go, there’s no harm in a few transfers before the candidate becomes part of the government.
The democratic answer to this challenge is to convince voters that in exchange for a small benefit, they are throwing away the right to elect a government that will carry out policies that voters want. But for such an argument to strike a chord, voters must believe that their elected representative will have a say in policy-making. Today, there’s really no reason for them to believe so.
The ability of an ordinary elected representative in India to influence policy is fundamentally constrained. In an effective democracy, he should at least have the right to vote for or against a particular policy measure. But the anti-defection law in India ensures that they can only vote the way the party directs them to—even when what their constituents want is the opposite of what the party directs, they have to go with the party or risk losing their seat.
Elected representatives do not then have a voting record that is different from that of their party. Consequently, there is no way for a voter to confirm what a candidate believes in, even after they have had a term in office. Voters cannot also assume that the elected representative is committed to all that the party stands for. Candidates switch parties too often to be identified with a particular party’s ideology. And the parties are so high-command-dominated that it would take a very naive voter to believe that his elected representative can actually influence that party’s policies. Once the ability to influence policy is thrown out of the window, the elected representative is reduced to someone who can only carry out minor local repairs or meet the immediate needs of individual constituents through recommendations and the like. The voter may then well decide that a candidate who is not responsive enough to her need for a little cash before being elected will hardly help her after the elections are over.
The solution to the crisis in our electoral process is then not so much in enforcing stricter norms on candidates, but on fundamentally altering the way politics is carried out. To begin with, whips under the anti-defection law should be issued only in a select set of motions where a failure can be treated as a statement of no-confidence in the government. On all other policy matters, the elected representatives should be allowed to vote according to what would appeal to their constituents. Such a process would mean governments seeking to implement a policy measure cannot do so by diktat. They would have to convince individual elected representatives about the value of that measure. This would necessarily require the party organisation to play a bigger role. And if this process of convincing individual elected representatives is carried out transparently, voters will know which way their representative is leaning. They could then treat an election as a means of approving or disapproving policies rather than just another occasion to raise glasses in a cynical toast to democracy.
(The writer is a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.)
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