This last month has been very educative for me. I have traveled around the entire district of Mysore and met young people, students, and members of self help groups, farmers, software engineers, factory workers and housewives. Our intent was to create awareness on the importance of citizen participation in making democracy work. One saw mixed reactions from people. There was hope, aspiration, demand for change, feeling of helplessness and sometimes a resigned acceptance of the morass to which our political set up has sunk. The kind of questions that people asked reflected the hopes and aspirations of the common man. The despair and frustration born out of the helplessness in people, the inability to change, the corruption and indifference both in the voters and in the candidates were all palpable. Many of them questioned the impossibility of the task that we had taken on ourselves. They wanted to know if free and fair elections could ever be a reality in our country. The newspapers were all reporting the different steps that the Election Commission was taking in order to do this, but somehow the people did not seem convinced. The recent transfer of IAS officers and the Central Appellate Tribunal’s decision and the subsequent High Court order did leave some of them confused. I started asking people what they felt would contribute to free and fair elections from their perspective. The answers I got was very informative and showed that not only does the common man notice and perceive such things, but he also has his own metric to measure free and fair elections.
Some villagers in one place told me how non-vegetarian dinners were being provided regularly for flimsy reasons. They asked how people who hardly knew anyone in their village would find a reason to feed all of them. Could not the Election commission simply ban any congregation of more than 25 people in the area and clearly prevent such lavish dinners, whatever the reason be?
Another group of young people told me how every village now suddenly had a cricket team. All young boys not only got bats, balls and wickets to play, but also t-shirts and caps. They also found sponsors for their games and prizes. They only wanted to know why is it that everyone except the district authorities knew who their sponsors were. Elections now meant that it was not just the IPL players who make hay when the sun shines, but also these cricketing amateurs in many villages where elections were impending.
Speaking to a few shop owners dealing with consumer durables gave me an understanding how their sales spiked in the month elections were held. Voters were now given gift coupons and vouchers that they could exchange for consumer goods once the elections were over. These coupons were cleverly valid only after the elections were over and the code of conduct no longer applied. Why could not the Election Commission watch over these sales and selling points and use the machinery of the commercial tax department to keep track? How difficult would it be to make all such gift coupons and vouchers invalid for a Government that can ban books and cinemas whenever they feel like?
Another question that always arose during the discussions with women was the easy and free availability of liquor. They wanted to know how despite the measures claimed by the DC, so much of liquor was available in the run up to the elections. Why could not all liquor sales be banned during this month was the question that they had. While one can understand that this may have other ramifications, but can one imagine an elections being free and fair with liquor being distributed so freely?
Election time is also one opportunity when a lot of people get livelihood. They get paid for mobilizing people, for accompanying the candidate while filing nomination, while they canvass, and to man the booths. One candidate from a national party told me that people had to be paid to come and celebrate their victories too. Why couldn’t the Commission limit the canvassing to people who are genuine supporters of the candidate and monitor whether party workers and others are paid for their services?
While the Deputy Commissioners do try and monitor the number of vehicles, and the distance they run or the fuel consumed, the people were somehow skeptical about the effectiveness of these procedures. They kept asking me if this system was really working, why were the local taxis in such short supply during this month? One taxi owner told me that this was the best month for him and that his vehicle was booked for the whole month by a person that he never knew. All that he cared about was the fact that he got paid by the day and his charges were more than 50% of the normal tariff that he levied.
A set of elderly middle-class men recollected the time when Mr T.N.Seshan was the CEC. They wanted to know how he could do what he did using the same set of laws many years ago. They felt that the present system too needs to create the fear of law and they felt that this had to be done by using strict and visible penal action as a deterrent against any electoral malpractice.
My interactions with many former Chief Election Commissioners and one present Election Commissioner leaves no doubt in my mind that they are all trying to ensure a free and fair elections. All of them are trying to bring in different processes to clean up the system and conduct the elections transparently and efficiently. Many suggestions given by the man on the street may sound impractical, but we need to understand that it is his confidence that needs to be boosted. It is the common voter who needs the reassurance that things are changing for the good. The Election Commission can do its bit to ensure that the electoral rolls are cleaned up, remove the names of people who are dead and long gone, eliminate the confusing entries, update and make them accurate, clarify the ineligible entries, and have time-bound processes that demonstrate to us that not only do their personnel work but the software that they use also does. They need to make the DC responsible for the inaccuracies and act against him and his officials without hesitation, fear or favour. They can surely keep the error margin manageable, say upto 2-3%, if they are meticulous in their follow-up and act against errant officials at whatever level that they may be in. The Commission can also ensure that anyone with a criminal case pending for more than 5 years does not contest as a candidate or if he does, the voters should be officially made aware of this fact. The Commission should not only share the information pertaining to the assets and liabilities and criminal backgrounds with all law enforcement agencies like the Income Tax Department, Enforcement Directorate, Economic Offenses Unit, Revenue Intelligence Unit, local police, etc but also keep following up with them to take necessary action under the prevailing laws for any violation. They need to share the action taken in the public domain and let us all know what happens to the disproportionate assets that many of them declare in their affidavits.
We also need to have a time-bound judicial process for disqualification of candidates when they are known to have indulged in malpractice. I remember a case of an MLA whose caste antecedence was questioned not only completing his term but is contesting again under the same caste certificate. How will the people place their faith in a system where they see the rich and powerful getting away with such impunity?
We, the common people, also need to stop externalizing both the problem and the solution. We can no longer wait for the ‘messiah’ to come and redeem us from this mess. We need to find solutions within the framework of existing laws and structures. We have enough already in place, all we need are people with the courage, willingness and the conviction to implement them. We also need to understand that ‘character’ cannot be outsourced and we need to live the change that we wish to see.
We need to begin by infusing a sense of pride in being a Democracy. Creating a stake in good governance and the benefits of good for the common citizen can no longer be a fad but is an essential pre-requisite for progress. We should not see Democracy from the despair of a failed monarchy or colonization. We need to see it from the context of our times and the kind of future that we can build for ourselves. We have to stop seeing democracy from behind tinted glasses. We cannot let our ‘moral outrage’ over failure of Governance turn into despondency. We need to reconstruct this ‘outrage’ to ‘active engagement’. Only then can we make democracy work in the context that India is in. A free and fair election is an important step in strengthening democracy and we the common citizens need to do our bit in ensuring this. Or else, we will have only ourselves to blame.