Across the aisle: Constitutional values under threat during elections, writes P Chidambaram

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Updated: December 9, 2018 3:06:55 PM

The results of the elections will be important for the country and for the two major parties, the BJP and the Congress.

Voters show their ID cards as they queue to cast vote for the state Assembly elections, at a Jaipur district (PTI)

You will read this column two days after the last of the five states have voted (December 7) and two days before counting (December 11). I can therefore afford to be less circumspect!

The five states that went to polls are not exactly representative of the whole country. Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are among the poorer states of India, culturally rich, socially conservative/regressive, educationally backward and economically on the lower rungs of the ladder.

Mizoram is high on human development but resource-poor and hence a relatively poor state. Telangana is a state that can be whatever it wants to be but it still looks like a start-up and not
a grown-up.

The results of the elections will be conclusive for the people of the five states but will be inconclusive for the rest of the country. Unless Mizoram and Chhattisgarh produce ‘hung’ Assemblies, it is possible that in all the five states a government with a clear majority will be formed. That will signal to the world that despite attempts to erode institutions and liberty, democracy is thriving in India, though slightly bruised.

Factors common and different 

There were factors common to the five states: Mr Narendra Modi, the tireless campaigner; Mr Rahul Gandhi, the feisty challenger; soaring unemployment; farmers’ distress, debt and agony; rampant use of money; unconcealed attempts to polarise the electorate; and questions about EVMs.

There were key differences too. In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the BJP chief ministers were undefeated veterans of three successive terms aiming for a historic fourth term. In Rajasthan, the BJP chief minister had alternately won and lost, and this time it was her turn to lose! In Mizoram, the Congress chief minister had a record of service and sacrifice (in favour of Laldenga), but this time he was challenged by his erstwhile colleagues. In Telangana, the youngest state in the Union, the runaway victor of 2014 was fighting to save his government and his pride.

The results of the elections will be important for the country and for the two major parties, the BJP and the Congress. The aftermath of the results will be more important — how many of the constitutional values survived the bitterly fought elections. I think we should ask ourselves, of what purpose are elections if after every election a bit of the Constitution perished?

Values at stake
So, let me count the constitutional values that are at stake.
At the top, is the value of free and fair elections that is entrusted to the care of the Election Commission (EC). The EC has failed the people in many ways, the gravest failure being its inability to curb the use of unaccounted money. Expenditure limits are a farce. People are inclined to think that elections can be fought only by candidates who are rich or corrupt or both. If the candidates do not have money, the party must have hoards of cash to fund its candidates — like Jayalalithaa did and the BJP is widely believed to be doing now. The EC has also failed the people by its unwillingness to improve the security of the EVM-VVPAT system of polling and counting. The minimum it could do is to match the EVM count with the VVPAT count in at least 25 % of the polling units. It will mean a delay of about two-three hours in declaring the result, but that is a very small price to pay to win the confidence of the people.

Next is the value of a free media. Some TV channels are not only pay channels, they are also paid channels. The rest, though not paid for, appear to have partially keeled over out of fear. Most newspapers struggle to remain independent, dipping their standard only when reporting the Prime Minister. The Congress and Mr Rahul Gandhi remain the favourite punching bags, but the punches are landing more softly as the Congress’s graph rises more visibly. Before the Lok Sabha elections, the media must find a way to reclaim its position as the fearless and independent fourth estate.

Third, is the value of a free vote. With every election, the caste calculus is becoming the most important criterion — from selection of candidates to formation of governments. Every rise in the importance of caste means that the importance of other factors — party-narrative, leadership, performance, candidate-merit, manifesto promises, etc. — is diminishing rapidly.

Fourth, is the value of a constituency’s verdict. If the victor betrays the verdict and behaves like a trapeze artist — swinging from one party to another — of what purpose is the candidate-based, constituency-specific election? We may have to seriously consider alternatives.
Notwithstanding the above, the results will be declared on December 11. Here are some whispers in
the corridors:

Friends in the Congress and the BJP say that the Congress will win Rajasthan!
Friends in the Congress say that the Congress will win Madhya Pradesh, friends in the BJP are silent!
In Chhattisgarh, the Congress may fall just short of a majority. In a hung Assembly, no one knows what BSP- Jogi will do!
A person close to the chief minister of Telangana has confidentially called the state for the Congress!
No one is able to predict the outcome in Mizoram except to say that the BJP is waiting to play mischief!


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