The recently concluded elections to urban local bodies across the state of Karnataka brought mixed responses. Each political party came out with their own interpretations of the electoral results. While one major party claimed this as a forerunner of the change that would soon occur, another saw it as a minor aberration due to lack of preparations. Another recently launched party felt that it was at-least relevant in explaining the defeat of another party, while a large number of independent candidates ended up winning. Amidst all the noise and confusion, very few noticed that democracy got weakened and lost in most places.
Elections to the Mysore City Corporation (the city where I live) were not without its share of tamasha. Though the noise and polluting flex banners were conspicuous by their absence, canvassing was more door-to-door. People moved around in large numbers campaigning for their candidates. I met one such group and started talking to one of the ladies who was part of the canvassing team. While she knew the name of the candidate, I found it amusing that she did not even know the party that he belonged to. Getting curious, I started probing deeper only to realize that most of the people in the group had been hired on a daily basis for the purpose of canvassing. She told me that she earned her living by working as a domestic servant in a couple of houses. This last week had been very profitable for her. She was being given Rs 1000 each day and 3 meals (mostly non-vegetarian food). All she had to do was to show up and be part of this group and walk around the whole day between 9 am and 6 pm. For her, elections meant an opportunity to earn a little extra money and she was very happy that the assembly elections were rapidly approaching. Her only complaint was that the men were being paid Rs 1500. I continued to follow up the electoral fortunes of this candidate who actually ended up winning. As part of his victory celebrations, he ended up distributing set-top boxes to all families in his ward. No one could now say that elections had not benefited his local constituency. Interacting with a couple of families in his ward, I realized that many of them were given at least Rs 500 to come out and vote on Election Day. The voters were indeed happy as most of the candidates, including the losing ones, had ended up paying money for their votes. It was indeed funny that despite putting up his vote for sale, the average citizen still ended choosing and casting his vote for the person he wanted. Even in a perverted sense, there still seems to be some semblance of democracy at work here.
Talking to one of the candidates revealed his side of the story. He explained to me that it was indeed easy to criticize the politicians for bribing the voters. He asked my why was it that no one spoke about the ‘corrupt voter’. He said that most politicians would only be too happy to spend less on the elections. For him paying out money to the voter may not guarantee a victory, but then, not doing so virtually guaranteed a defeat. People like him did not want to take any chances and had joined the bandwagon of giving out money and sops in order to be in the race. How does one realize that there are many things that money cannot buy and there are several things that society should make sure that money should not buy too? Our rights as citizens and the responsibilities that accompany our citizenship surely should not be for sale. Selling them can only weaken our democracy and make good governance the immediate casualty.
While each party will make their own analysis and have their own explanations, what stands out is the fact that people turning out to vote has been steadily decreasing. Most of the candidates who won did so not because they were popular and represented most of the people of their constituency but only because they polled higher votes than their nearest rivals. In reality most of them do not reflect majority opinion but are lucky enough to be the first to go beyond the ‘post’. It is indeed difficult in these circumstances to even claim that Democracy wins in India.
One of our primary duties as citizens is to understand ‘Democracy’ and its nature. We need to realize that Democracy is a form of Government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect our lives. Democracy allows eligible citizens to participate equally — either directly or through elected representatives — in the proposal, development, and creation of laws. It encompasses social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination. Weakening it will only result in we ourselves being responsible for the decay and degeneration that we see in our governments and administration. We cannot then blame our politicians and the bureaucracy alone for the lack of progress and development.
Representative Democracy allows us to express our political power only through our representatives and this prevents our citizens from realizing how their non-participation can result in a weakening of our democratic institutions. We, as common citizens, have to go beyond this and try and enlarge the scope of our engagement and try and bring in ‘Participatory Democracy’. We need to understand that elections are only one facet of our responsibility and we need to continue to engage with the people we have elected to office even after the elections. Only when we begin doing this, can we enforce accountability and give the much-needed life back to Democracy.
A few people do argue that these concepts of democracy are alien to India and are not a part of our cultural past. They feel that this concept which first originated in the city of Athens in 508 BC is not rooted in Indian political thought. Though the Romans are credited for strengthening democracy over the next many centuries, a closer examination of their system exposes the many flaws that existed then too. The votes of the powerful were given more weight through a system of gerrymandering, so most high officials, including members of the Senate, came from a few wealthy and noble families. While these cannot be reasons for us to accept things as they today are in India, we need to ensure that every Indian finds the opportunity and space to effectively participate in the entire process. We need to work towards not just making the universal franchise work, but also in ensuring that our ‘votes’ stay invaluable. Selling them will only strengthen the argument that only the rich and the powerful can win elections. If Democracy has to work, we need to create the level-playing field for candidates from all social and economic backgrounds to participate. The Democracy Index 2011 shows India as a ‘Flawed Democracy’ and we do have a lot of ground to cover before we can aspire to make it to the list of ‘Full Democracies’. We cannot be satisfied with the mere claim that we are the largest democracy in the world. We also need to move towards becoming a fully functional and a healthy one, wherein every citizen is not only aware of his rights but consciously performs his duties too. While there are several other factors like religion, caste, population size, criminalization, cronyism, poverty and regional differences that can affect the working of our democracy, we need to realize that strengthening our fledgling democracy is the only real solution that can work. We as citizens have to commit ourselves to practicing Transparency in all our dealings, hold ourselves to the highest standards of Accountability and unhesitatingly Participate in all matters concerning our development and us. Only when we do that, will we gain the moral right to question our elected representatives and hold them accountable. Citizenship does demand a price and unless we pay it willingly and intentionally, we cannot hope to change what we have allowed India to become.