In Chile, the president is elected for a single 6-year term, with no possibility of re-election. This regulation prohibiting re-election came into effect in 1989 after a constitutional reform that extended presidential tenure to 6 years, thereby reducing government expenditure and effort on elections (Countries like Columbia, Ecuador and Nicaragua – though hardly democracies - also do not allow consecutive terms). The strength of such a decision was clear: once a win is secured, the president has no reason to campaign for another term. Knowing his days are numbered, he performs.
When the world’s most expensive election comes every 5 years in India and its participants spend almost half that period campaigning, is it time to rethink a new electoral model ?. The sheer scale of the Indian voting exercise is daunting. Six weeks long and spread to the remotest village - many without electricity, water or paved roads - the $7 billion dollar expense, according to Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies, is higher than the 2016 American elections. That is merely the official figure; the process sees other generous handouts that help sway voters - whisky bottles, blenders, saris, TV sets and cash amounts in billions (Rs 1.3 billion was seized just in Karnataka’s state election). Not to mention tiffin boxes of biryani handed out at election rallies.
CMS also estimates that social media spending has itself increased from Rs. 250 crore in 2014 to almost 5000 crores. In 2014, for every voter, the Election Commission spent Rs 46--including the cost of advertisements, awareness campaigns, travel and honorariums for election officials. The 2019 Lok Sabha election will surpass that, according to Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank.
The exercise is tainted from the very outset: institutional lying, booth rigging, intimidation and coercion, the process even supports dummy candidates. In the last election, UP fielded three Hema Malinis – one real and two fake to confuse the voters and split the vote. A candidate in Western UP, arranged with a contractor to drop road building materials all along a broken section of National Highway 8, to indicate his future sincerity to his constituents. Though he won the election, the road remained potholed. The material was merely picked up after his win.
Without faith in public institutions, it hardly makes sense to merely demonstrate to the world, the workings of a democratic process. The story of a full election set up in a remote region of Gujarat, just so a single voter could exercise his franchise, resonated across the globe, but was an altogether hollow exercise, knowing that little of valued development had come to his village.
How then do you govern a country in perpetual election fever? In Europe and Latin America, popular anger is quickly rewriting constitutional order and throwing up a range of untested and unconventional candidates. As countries like Brazil and Columbia reel under drug investigations and corruption scandals, newer and more moderate candidates appear on the horizon. Environmentalist Marina Silva now stands a good chance in Brazil. Beppe Grillo, a comedian started his own party in Italy.
Nowhere is the mistrust in politicians more acutely apparent than in a country that chose to actually elect a comedian to office. Volodymyr Zelensky was Ukraine’s most famous face on television when he played an honest school teacher who gets elected by accident as the country’s president. So desperate were the citizens to replace a thoroughly inept and corrupt government that when Zelenskey actually stood for elections recently he won, and now faces something more than just a television audience.
With environmentalists, comedians and builders gaining electoral ground throughout the world, in India current battles are hardly waged on content or ideas. When money and media are readily available and manipulating people now a highly developed form of advertising, the degeneration of democracy is complete. With an expensive upheaval occurring so frequently, the voter’s mind is set only on party alliances, nothing else.
When manifestos are weak or non-existent, the unbelieving public happily turns to the cult of personality. It is a strange paradox that in a party system the real choices are still attached to stars from other fields: Hema Malini, Vijender Singh, Yogi Adityanath and others. What is the inherent value of tossing cricket, film and religious personalities into an already inexperienced cauldron of politics? Are they expected to learn on the job? The interchangeability of professions says a lot about the quality of Indian political life, though it is highly unlikely that Vir Das, Sunita Narain or the Ansals will be prompted into power on the strength of their professional performance.
In a system that is constantly crediting itself as the largest democratic exercise in the world, perhaps a rethink is required. Can a party or a prime minister ever be held accountable unless the term is time-bound? Given the inordinate expense, would it make sense to revert to some sort of compromise presidential system similar to Chile’s with only a single long-term – say 7 years - so the elected leader doesn’t spend his or her tenure campaigning, but devotes time fully to governance? Besides, should candidates – whether actors, Godmen or cricketers - be asked to pass an exam that demonstrates their fluency with the history of people and places they are about to govern? It is a reform long in coming.
Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and an artist. Views expressed are personal