The show goes on

Written by B.G. Verghese | Updated: May 11 2009, 05:02am hrs
There was an international poll recently to determine the seven greatest wonders from amongst the worlds built and natural heritage. Had the competition been enlarged to include other events, the Indian general elections would surely have figured in terms of sheer magnitude (about 730 million voters), diversity (more than all of North America and Europe put together) and organisational complexity at a time when several terrorist guns are being trained on different sections of the electorate and the electoral machinery. Its romance and drama was captured in a front page photograph in a national daily depicting a polling party fording a stream in Chhattisgarh, trousers rolled up and leading a pair of donkeys carrying electronic voting machines!

A large number of registered national and regional parties are in the contest in addition to many of the hundreds of unregistered parties in the country. Most seats are being contested by a large number of party and independent candidates though only two to four may be serious contenders. A few are spoilers and dummy candidates but most others wish to make a statement or prove a point.

Uniquely in the post-war, post-colonial world after 1947 India, as long debated and decided, adopted parliamentary democracy as its chosen instrument for making a social and economic revolution rather than follow the historical path taken by Europe and Japan where it was an end product of a century and more of economic and social change. This must rank among the greatest political decisions of the 20th century, a promise to which India has held fast. The 15th Lok Sabha elections are in keeping with that pledge.

Poll drama

The current elections, of which four out of five phases have been completed, are basically no different from earlier elections except for the larger numbers involved. Despite all the heat generated about legislating a minimum one-third representation for women in the Lok Sabha and the Assemblies, sadly no party has nominated numbers proportionate to that goal. This election is unfortunately likely to go down as a more acrimonious, extravagant and open poll. Despite a great deal more effort at voters education and monitoring of the assets and criminal records of candidates, these ratios have not demonstrably declined. The current electoral laws do not debar spending beyond the limits prescribed for individual candidates by their parties and friends. According to the grape vine, the expenditure ceiling of Rs 25 lakh per constituency is being breached with average expenditures touching Rs 3 crore and more and individual contestants spending even more. Again, there is nothing to bar a person with an appeal against a criminal charge pending from contesting the polls. Some are even contesting on bail. These are lacunae that need to be plugged through a national consensus that permits the necessary reforms and legislation to go through. Likewise, issues of security and terrorism have been vociferously raised. But there has been little debate or commitment to police reform or steps to combat corruption. This is because the political class desires to keep control of the police, CBI and other instrumentalities to meet their own ends rather than enable them to function autonomously for the public good. There was much unseemly debate about the outgoing Chief Election Commissioner and his successor which, hopefully, is now behind us. What has come under criticism is the sweep of and manner in which the election code of conduct has been applied sometimes appearing to paralyse normal governance by freezing decisions over a many- phased election. This too needs review so that the right balance is struck. Opinion and exit polls have rightly been banned so as not to influence voting behaviour between the commencement and conclusion of the poll. Exit polls may only be published after the last vote in the election has been cast. No freedom of the press is involved here as the freedom of the poll in the given context is surely the larger right that must be protected.

What will the mandate hold

Some worry about no party or formation winning a majority and there being a hung parliament, an unstable coalition and the prospect of fresh elections within a year or two. However, there is no constitutional requirement for a government to have an overall majority of half the Lok Sabha plus one or 272 seats at all times. It must be a rare occasion if ever the full membership of the House has been present and voted since 1952. The Constitution merely provides that the government shall enjoy the confidence of the House, which implies a majority of these present and voting on any given occasion. A minority government such as Narasimha Raos which served its full term got issue-based support from different quarters on different occasions. This is commonplace, not unique.

The moment a search for an arithmetical majority of 272 is sought, or mistakenly demanded by the President or the governors, it provides a signal for the worst kind of horse trading and for potential supporters to be kidnapped and followers to be paraded. All this is extra-constitutional. Issues of majority support can and must be settled on the floor of the House and whosoever is given the mandate to form a government should have no more than 24 hours to face the House to win its confidence and not be given anywhere from a week to three weeks to prove his or her majority as usually happens. The President and the governors have often been abominably advised in this regard despite clear Supreme Court rulings.

So next time you hear some upstart talk of majority, reach for your gun. Further, a parliament lacking a majority is not hung and need not result in piteous lamentation. This is theatre. Nor are coalitions unnatural or necessarily undesirable. They reflect the enormous diversity of India manifest in regional and local parties, symbolising the steady upthrust and empowerment from below as millions of traditional Bharatis graduate into a more modernising India and claim equal citizenship and programmes that answer their needs. This process is deepening and widening Indian democracy and imparting stability and coherence to the state even if it sometimes entails rocky passage for governments. A great socio-political churning is under way and if fresh elections become necessary in two years from now, there is no reason to worry. Individual parties and would-be prime ministers and other pretenders may feel jittery. India is safe.

The writer is Visiting Professor, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

Fact of the Matter

714 million people - more than twice the population of the United States - are eligible to vote in the worlds biggest democratic exercise

More than 800,000 polling stations have been set up for a five-phased vote over several weeks, watched over by 2.1 million security personnel

1.1 million electronic voting machines are being used across the nation. In 1996, before the introduction of electronic voting machines

8,000 metric tonnes of paper were used to print ballots

25% of the 543 lower house elected MPs had criminal cases pending against them in 2004. More than half of the cases were for serious offences including murder, rape and large-scale corruption

A 94-year-old became the oldest MP in the 2004 elections. The youngest was 26

No. 29 (Dharampur) in the remote Arunachal Pradesh that borders China is a constituency that had just one voter in 2004

13 days is how long the shortest government in Indian history, formed in 1996, lasted

5,180 metres above the sea level is Indias highest polling booth in Fastan village in Kashmirs Ladakh region. Believe it or not, but the nearest road is 26 km from the station

2,00,000 bottles of indelible ink will be used to mark voters fingers to prevent double voting

$2 billion is what the mammoth political exercise is estimated to cost the nation, according to the Centre for Media Studies