Like oxygen, democracy is vital for life. However, as long as it is present, one doesn’t necessarily value its importance. Unlike many newly-independent countries, India has always had a democracy dividend, barring a brief aberration in mid-1970s. Indeed, India’s timeline of universal suffrage compares favourably with many developed societies. The empirical basis for a democracy tax, as trade-off against growth, is suspect. Assuming it exists, democracy is non-negotiable.
Democracy doesn’t mean Parliament and state legislatures alone. It’s also the third tier and countervailing pressure by civil society (not just media) to make elected representatives more accountable. The electoral system isn’t without blemishes and proposals for reform have floated around for years. The Preamble to the Constitution says, “We the People”. Unless we the people exert pressure, the system won’t change. Cynicism and secession of the relatively rich and relatively powerful from the system doesn’t help. It’s evident from recent elections that there’s greater interest, especially amongst youth, in democracy. Understandably, there’s scepticism about criminalisation of politics (or politicisation of criminals) and electoral funding, not to speak of functioning of elected representatives. Ideally, there should have been change in time for the 2014 general elections. But those reforms have now been pushed back to 2019, or further beyond.
If we are becoming more conscious of a stake in the system, we ought to know how elections work and what the Election Commission of India (eci) does. Especially since 1992, it has been fairly effective, notwithstanding criticism (disabled voters, electoral rolls in Maharashtra) and disparaging remarks by politicians (Salman Khurshid) who should have known better. S.Y. Quraishi has been election commissioner/chief election commissioner and has been talking, lecturing, writing and tweeting on electoral reforms. One can’t think of a better person to document the Indian electoral process. This book does it in 13 chapters, with anecdotes, photos and even cartoons (Sudhir Tailang) thrown in. Broadly, there are four segments. Firstly, what it takes to undertake elections in India and what the eci’s powers are; two, what has been done to get citizens, especially the young, interested; why the eci can’t do more about the model code of conduct, money, criminals and manipulation by media, and lastly, what the agenda for reform is. On all four, there’s a wealth of information.
Having said this, I have two complaints. First, beyond information on everything else, most interest will centre on the reform agenda. That’s also what much of citizens groups’ talk (adr, prs to name two) centres around. Quraishi deals with the issue in a single chapter; it could have been expanded into several. Secondly, the 12 remaining chapters are about the first three aforementioned issues. With better editing, it should have been possible to collapse much of this into fewer chapters, providing scope to expand on the reform bit, unless Quraishi plans a separate book on it. He also quotes Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried.” The complete sentence goes thus: “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of ministers who are their servants and not their masters.” This is from a November 1947 House of Commons speech. Earlier in the speech, Churchill had said, “This essential British wisdom is expressed in many foreign constitutions which followed our parliamentary system, outside the totalitarian zone.”
Democracy isn’t only about elections. It is much more than the electoral process. The cynicism about the three organs of the state mentioned in the Constitution (executive, legislature, judiciary) isn’t healthy. The Constitution is the bedrock of Indian polity and it is up to citizens to strengthen, not weaken, its organs. The eci is a small part of the jigsaw. Nor is electoral reforms something the eci can push on its own. But in collectively pushing for that, this book arms us with the necessary information. One possible antonym for democracy is kakistocracy. If our democracy dividend degenerates into that, we will have only ourselves to blame.