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The One Who Didn't Fit

Spoilers in electoral math maybe, but we are the richer for 'independent' thinking

The One Who Didn't Fit
Jitender Gupta
The One Who Didn't Fit
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh thinks they are "spoilers". They think they represent India's democratic plurality much better than he, an unelected leader, does. Elections 2009 has witnessed a surge in the number of independent contestants (see infographic), and poll pundits have begun to analyse their role and impact on this election.

This list of independents goes beyond the much-publicised trio of Meera Sanyal, G.R. Gopinath and Mallika Sarabhai. Spurred on by the decadence in party politics and events like the November 26 attacks on Mumbai, a large number of teachers, professors, activists, management professionals and others have joined the fray. Voting's not enough, they say. If you want to see change, you may as well be there to bring it about.

The number of independents this time is 2,636, of which 864 are either graduates or have higher qualifications. With two phases still to go, the number of independents this election has already surpassed the 2,385 figure for '04. Interestingly, the number of independent candidates peaked in '96 at 10,635.

Ajay Goyal in Chandigarh

Contesting this year is Ajay Goyal, an independent candidate from Chandigarh. Having contemplated getting into politics for long, he decided he couldn't wait any longer after the attacks on Mumbai. "There is a sense of fear, a lack of security and a feeling that we may not have a future," says Goyal, who quit his job as a private investor in London. "Greatness, on the other hand, because of the strength of our educated youth, is just around the corner. But we're not going to get there by chance. One will have to work towards it."

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While most opt not to associate with parties so as to retain their individuality, some feel that most parties are no longer democratic in giving tickets. Moreover, many of these contestants, particularly the younger ones, choose to go independent to cut short the route to national politics. "To get a party ticket, one has to be associated with the party for long," says IIM-Ahmedabad alumnus and Chennai South candidate, the 30-year-old Sarath Babu. "And frankly, it is very difficult for young, educated people with no political background to break in. Parties are not merit-oriented. They draw their power from either money or muscle."

From a humble background—his mother at one point sold idlis by the roadside—Babu opted out of campus placements to launch a catering service that provides jobs to the underprivileged. Joining politics for Babu is taking that job creation to a much larger scale. "If I were to follow the conventional party route," he says, "I'd no longer be young by the time I get my chance."

The existing system too is unfair to independents. The democratic set-up, says Dakshina Kannada candidate, the US-returned academic T.R. Halemane, is biased in a way that moves power away from people to parties. "For instance, in voting lists, the names of candidates with national parties appear first, followed by those with regional parties. Independents come last," he says.

Then there is the limitation most independents face due to lack of funds. Unlike their opponents who're bankrolled by their parties, most of them have to campaign on a shoestring budget and depend on well-wishers and innovative tactics. They also depend a lot on mobile phone and the internet for canvassing. Prem Singh, a teacher at Delhi University and an independent candidate from East Delhi, withdrew Rs 3 lakh from his provident fund to finance his campaign. "I'm depending on support from my students and fellow activists," he says.

Since 1980, independents have generally comprised more than half the total candidates, but their success rate has been going down. From winning 42 seats in 1957, they have been reduced to single digits from 1991 and have hovered between nine and five. Of the five independent MPs in the 14th Lok Sabha, only two (Harish Nagpal from Amroha and Babu Lal Marandi from Kodarma) are contesting this election as independents. The other three have aligned themselves with local parties to secure a more popular support base.

South Mumbai candidate Meera Sanyal

Despite limited success, independents represent important ideologies and aspirations often lost in the tussle between the country's two political behemoths—the Congress and the BJP. "For a multilingual, multi-religious country like ours, a two-party system that they want to enforce cannot suffice," says Singh. Adds Halemane: "Letting independent candidates contest will ensure that alternative ways of thinking are not drowned."

Nonetheless, given the uncertainty independent candidates have created in various states, including in Jharkhand and Meghalaya, both under President's rule, people have been calling for a more structured framework to better integrate the independents. In a recent opinion piece in a leading national daily, Goa assembly secretary R. Kothandaraman argued that such a system should help them become "stable constituents" rather than "reckless free-floaters". "Independents should be incentivised to join a political party within three months of their election and, until that time, should perhaps be disentitled to vote on confidence motions," he wrote.

And a better way to check the "nuisance" of independents would be to undertake comprehensive electoral reform. "The growing number of independent candidates represents the non-transparent and non-democratic nature of our political parties," says Anil Bairwal, national coordinator, Association for Democratic Reforms. "Reforms to ensure democratic rise of individuals within a party are absolutely essential to accommodate independent aspirants."

In that lies another message though: even if the PM were to wish them away, independents are here to stay. It is for the parliamentary democracy system to evolve and enable them to be meaningful participants.


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