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October 12, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

Forget the silly season -- get down to the core

The silly season has begun. The psephologists having exited with their polls, the savant scriptwriters will now hold court, howsoever briefly. As is the fashion after every election, they will delve deep "explaining" the results. It was due to this, they will tell us; it was due to that, too, they will tell us. As usual, there will be as many explanations as there are men who do not know that the word "ballot" used in our People's Representation Act 1951 did not include votes cast by any mechanical process until the Act was amended in 1988 to permit electronic voting.

However, more important than the conventional election analysis are other facets that are crying for explanation if India is to become a mature democracy sooner than later. There are 11 such aspects that demand attention and exposition -- not only from the scriptwriters but also from all who have a genuine concern for the country's future polity.

* Let's begin with that infamous vote of confidence which brought the Vajpayee government down on April 17 this year.

A writer in the reputed Business Standard newspaper had pointed out then that the government needs to show it enjoys the confidence of the House "only when it is formed" and that there is no provision in our Constitution for the government to seek a vote of confidence. This view was reiterated on television by Subhash Kashyap, a retired secretary general of the Lok Sabha and an authority on Constitutional law. To top it all, there is that clear-cut view of the late H M Seervai, the colossus of a jurist. He had written in his renowned book that 'A vote of censure or a no confidence motion is recognised as a method of determining whether the prime minister and the council of ministers have the support of the majority of the members of the House.'

In the face of such overwhelming evidence pointing a finger of impropriety to what was done by the past Presidents, why did the present President act the way he did in regard to Vajpayee's government? Why was the elementary principle of a parliamentary democracy -- the no confidence motion -- allowed to be violated yet again? No explanation has been sought -- even by the aggressive media that has otherwise thought nothing of brow beating and constantly cross-examining the BJP about the exclusion of its "contentious issues "from the latest elections. Why pillory the BJP about its "hidden" agenda but not pillory the President about a Constitutional deviant?

A debate to settle this issue is essential. Remember that even after Jayalalitha had withdrawn her support to Vajpayee's government, no one in that motley Opposition had the guts to introduce a motion of no confidence. If only the President had insisted on their doing so, the previous government would not have fallen and the criminal loss of governance time (six months) as well as public money (10 billion rupees) entailed in the latest election would not have been inflicted on the people.

*Then there's the timing of the 13th Lok Sabha poll. Though the earlier House was dissolved on April 22 -- thus requiring the new one to be constituted within six months thereafter -- the Election Commission showed a callous disregard in getting a new Lok Sabha at the earliest. After quibbling with the dethroned government over the dates of the next elections, it sided with the Opposition in delaying them till September and went on to needlessly stretch them for over a month, oblivious to the fact that what the country needed quickly was a government to take meaningful decisions.

The critical question is: Who has the authority to determine the date of general elections? Is it the government that decides to dissolve the Lok Sabha or is it the EC? This columnist for one finds no answer in the existing laws. But this vital issue needs to be probed, highlighted and decided -- once and for all. While doing that, it must be remembered that the EC's function under Article 324 of the Constitution is to supervise and conduct free and fair elections -- not to also be the arbiter on the date of elections. This grey area once again points to the need for a comprehensive law laying down the functions, powers and procedures of the EC.

* For long years now, newspaper analyses have been discussing the electoral prospects of a candidate and a political party on the basis of the constituency's caste and community equations. Exit polls do the same for discussing voting patterns. And the smart scriptwriters will use the same contemptuous tools in this silly season. Hasn't time come for all educated, mature opinion makers to put an immediate halt to that practice which only spreads the cancer of Indian society? Halt it by law, if need be? Why don't the scores of activists of scores of hues agitate for a law prohibition the mention of caste etc in any application form or any document whatsoever?

Incidentally, how do analysts at all get the figures for votes cast by Muslims or Kurmis or Yadavs? Unless the counterfoils of the ballot papers are studied and other documents verified, this break-up of votes is impossible to procure. Has anybody bothered to ask how or why this "insight" is procured (manufactured?), touted and thrown at the poor public? No. And why not? Because the opinion makers don't really have the larger vision. And why is that so?

* For a long time now, our media has lambasted the Congress party's genuflection to dynastic rule. Yet, the same media recently projected Priyanka Vadra as a "princess" without bothering to learn about her knowledge regarding the country's socio-economic problems. Why this flippancy towards an issue of gravity? Was it because even the educated class of India is still suffering from the hangover of rule by royalty?

* Sonia Gandhi, we were told, was "lustily cheered" by crowds in villages, towns and cities. Indeed, she became the favourite of at least one well-known English language scribe-cum-television personality. Hardly anyone probed her vision of India or questioned her tactic of emphasis on her gender for garnering support. Nobody displayed the professional courage to ask her why she expelled Pawar & Co. from the Congress instead of simply resolving their doubts on the status of her citizenship. Did this suppliant attitude of media men and women reveal that even our educated elite still suffers from an inferiority complex when confronted by the white skin? Or is there some other explanation? Whatever it is, an explanation is called for if India as a nation is to hold its head high in the years to come.

* Analysts discuss, ad nauseam, the ubiquitous "anti-incumbency" factor to explain a majority of election results. It is time that the public at large is told that certain decisions perceived by the electorate as unpopular were, in fact, good decisions -- for reasons of law and order, general discipline, sound economics etc. If this is not done, the administrative and financial nature of governance will continue to be populist, continue to deteriorate and ultimately head for disaster.

One example would be enough to illustrate this. If a strike by 90,000 government workers is declared illegal by the courts and the government enforces the ruling of "no work no pay," would it be good for the work culture that the voters throw out the government for that decision? Would that then be simply labelled and dismissed as an "anti-incumbency" factor?

* Analysts often explain away parliamentary election results as caused by local issues such as bad roads and lack of drinking water or power supply in the villages. Who has created and perpetuated this palpable ignorance of the electorate that a Lok Sabha candidate is no different from the panchayat candidate? Who has created and perpetuated this ignorance about the working of the federal, state and local self-government system in our country? Is it because the commentators themselves do not know the nuances and intricacies of the system? An explanation -- an introspection -- is a must.

* Killings and riots in our general elections are now considered as normal. They make newspaper headlines for the day and all of them are forgotten till the next ones occur. Nobody has bothered to examine as to who should be held responsible for that rape of democracy. Is it the EC officials or the state government or the security people? We don't hear of First Information Reports being filed, of criminal cases being contested, of compensation being paid to innocent voters. Why? An explanation is, once again, a must.

* The recent election has been one more attempt to demolish the politician class. Many of them may indeed be vile but many more will be found to be intelligent, conscientious and hard working. But what has made the vile ones what they are? Haven't the grossly high public expectation, the bureaucratic rules, the electoral system, the sheer immensity of the tasks made them so? And what about the average privileged Indian -- the big farmer, the factory worker, the white-collared, the labour leader, the trader, the shopkeeper, the businessman, the industrialist, the bureaucrat and... the media man -- aren't many of them vile in their greedy, selfish and irresponsible view of life?

* The Telegraph of Calcutta reported on September 24 that in one of her election speeches in Orissa, Sonia Gandhi said if her party was voted to power, a national commission for scheduled tribes and scheduled castes would be set up. Why, oh, why did no one latch on to this monumental blunder by a party president who has prime ministerial ambition? The answer is probably simple. No one who matters is aware that there already exists a National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Tribes and that financial budgetary provisions are regularly made for its schemes. This ignorance of the commentators -- if not of Sonia Gandhi -- demands an introspection.

* Lastly, there's that prediction made by a reputed senior journalist on the edit page of The Indian Express dated March 30 of this year. That columnist proclaimed therein that 'Just as there is no doubt that the BJP will not form the next government in New Delhi, in the same way there is no uncertainty about the Congress coming to power after the general election.... It is not difficult to guess that the Congress will win at least 200 seats in the next Lok Sabha.... The BJP may not reach even the three-digit figure it has at present (180)'

What is the explanation for such outlandish prescience being allowed publication in a major newspaper? Does editorship and ambassadorship in the past and Rajya Sabha membership in the present give licence for writing surrealistic excreta?

Explanations are available for all of the above issues raised. But that would be possible only if the silly season is forgotten in favour of a more serious, more conscientious and more studious approach to the core of the India of our dreams.

Arvind Lavakare

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