Reading Time: 8 minutes
The 2019 Lok Sabha elections are at its last legs. Prof. Ashoka critiques Indian democracy, taking a hard look at NOTA, first past the post-Westminster system, etc. He asks if we are heading towards Kakistocracy, exclusively for Different Truths.
“Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely, to be honest than a clever man, and our politicians take advantage of this prejudice by pretending to be even more stupid than nature made them.” -Bertrand Russell
Lord Russell was my foremost icon in my adolescent years. I vividly recall the day I heard of his passing away. To many of my generation, it signalled that one of our major ambitions was going to remain unfulfilled – the desire to meet this intellectual giant in person! I often wonder if he had the power of prescience when he made this very astute observation; it applies so aptly to the twenty-first century Indian politics!
“Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”
The well-known author James Bovard was even more acerbic: “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”
Democracy, by definition, is defined by regular elections to be held at regular intervals. And one American statesman had this to say about our own personal responsibility in an electoral process: “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters,” stated Abraham Lincoln.
Responsibility Towards the Electoral Process
Where most of us fail is in appreciation of our responsibility towards the electoral process as so appropriately adumbrated by Abe Lincoln. And like many other nation-states that have a democratic edifice, we Indians have not exercised the vigilance that is expected from us.
… many states have adopted different electoral techniques. For instance, while the United Kingdom persists with the first past the post system, most European countries have settled for proportional representation.
Elections are effectively meant to ensure proper representation through a mandate. To ensure this, many states have adopted different electoral techniques. For instance, while the United Kingdom persists with the first past the post system, most European countries have settled for proportional representation. Each system has its own advantages and concomitant disadvantages and the preferences usually depend on the societal construct.
When the Constituent Assembly of India was in session, one of its many responsibilities was to define an electoral process suited to the Indian needs. It was at this stage they considered the merits and demerits of the prevalent electoral systems within the Indian context.
Eamonn De Valera, the Irish statesman was in regular touch with the President of the Constituent Assembly and Jawaharlal Nehru. The Republic of Ireland had gained its independence from a little more than two decades ago and De Valera had played a crucial role in the framing of the Irish Constitution. His suggestions were always meaningful, and it is for this reason the Indian Constitution resembles the Irish Constitution more than any other Constitution in the world.
First Past the Post Westminster System
When it came to identify the electoral process, some members of the Assembly felt that the British system (first past the post) should be adopted. De Valera wrote letters to a number of those (including Nehru and the President of the Constituent Assembly) and strongly advised that given the diversity of the Indian electorate, the first past the post system was unlikely to yield positive results and recommended the Irish system of multiple preferences. He pointed out that the Irish Constitution, itself an offshoot of the British Constitution, had differed in this regard. The first past the post Westminster system functioned well in Britain because there was not as much diversity in that country and also because democracy in Britain was at a higher evolutionary stage where it was accepted that once elected, a representative had just as much responsibility towards those of his/her electorates who did not vote in his/her favour as those who did.
As the argument was cogent, many felt it should be discussed fully but others (which included Nehru and Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer) in the committee stages felt very strongly that the Westminster system was tried and tested and hence should be adopted in its totality. And that is precisely what happened!
One particular survey pointed out that in the current Lok Sabha, there are at least 13 MPs, who in terms of voting, enjoy the support of less than 15 % of their respective total electorates.
Looking back through the seven decades of Indian democracy, we clearly made a wrong choice. Hardly any legislator today can claim to enjoy the support of more than 50 % of his/her respective electorate. In fact, one particular survey pointed out that in the current Lok Sabha, there are at least 13 MPs, who in terms of voting, enjoy the support of less than 15 % of their respective total electorates. And as there is no obligation on them to serve the interests of those who did not vote for them, a large section goes unrepresented in practical terms.
It is this infirmity that leads to vote-banks and they, in turn, are responsible for most of the ills of the society. A representative can be reasonably assured of a comfortable victory by shamelessly creating vote banks and pandering to them. And all the political parties have been doing this in the past and still persist with it shamelessly!
The sad part is that while this infirmity is well recognised, there is no incentive to hold a national debate. Many Election Commissioners, both past, and present, have called for electoral reforms but the entire political class has shown complete reluctance; the system suits them to the hilt!
Supreme Court Recognised NOTA
The Supreme Court took a salutary step in this regard when it recognised that there were people like myself who did not want to be placed in a position where they had to make a choice between the lesser of the two evils and permitted ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) option.
NOTA option was looked upon with some disdain by the politicians and their supporters and for a long time was not taken seriously.
From a personal perspective, it provided us the means to express our displeasure with all the candidates in the fray. Prior to this, the only option we had was to spoil the ballot paper to register our protest. NOTA option was looked upon with some disdain by the politicians and their supporters and for a long time was not taken seriously.
A democratic setup can only function when all the stakeholders believe that they have a stake in its preservation.
A democratic setup can only function when all the stakeholders believe that they have a stake in its preservation. Governments may be periodically voted in or voted out but there has to be inbuilt belief that replacement of a sympathetic polity with a relatively less sympathetic polity would not signal disaster for the section that did not vote for it.
This elementary axiom has escaped many countries and nation states and one would have to ruefully admit India has not been immune to this malady. In our country, politics has always been driven by acquisitive instincts rather than a desire to serve. Different parties have ruled India and its different provinces, but the instruments of governance reflect more commonality on this parameter.
Britain enables anyone, who is a legal resident and a taxpayer to exercise franchise despite not being a citizen of the country.
I shall reflect on the many years I spent in London. Britain enables anyone, who is a legal resident and a taxpayer to exercise franchise despite not being a citizen of the country. This provision, I must admit, came as a surprise to me. Once I moved into my new dwelling, I received a very nice letter from my local MP welcoming me and inviting me for tête-à-tête.
Interaction with Sir George Young
Sir George Young was a quintessential English gent, an alumnus of the Eton College and Oxford University. A 6’8” tall man, he always used to ride his bicycle to the Palace of Westminster – perhaps the only MP to do so. Soft-spoken unfailingly felicitous, he was a deep humanist at heart, and it came out very clearly in the conversations that he had with me.
Thatcher was trying her very best to extend support to the evil apartheid regime of Pieter Botha. I had participated in several anti-apartheid marches and had almost developed a visceral dislike for her.
The only problem was that he was a junior minister in the Margaret Thatcher government and remained so for pretty much her entire tenure. I had been known to be strongly opposed to his boss and had penned several letters and articles to the effect. At that very moment, Thatcher was trying her very best to extend support to the evil apartheid regime of Pieter Botha. I had participated in several anti-apartheid marches and had almost developed a visceral dislike for her.
I wrote back to him thanking him for his graciousness and explaining that I had taken positions against his boss more than once and it was only fair that I apprised him of this fact. I would have forgotten about our interaction had it not been for a telephone call I received the following Saturday from his office asking me if I would like to join him for a coffee the very next day.
He initiated the conversation by stating that it was his policy never to discuss political inclinations of his constituents and he would never do so with me. He perceived his role as someone who was meant to represent me in the Parliament…
I made my way there and spent a delightful hour interacting with him. He initiated the conversation by stating that it was his policy never to discuss political inclinations of his constituents and he would never do so with me. He perceived his role as someone who was meant to represent me in the Parliament, and he would be only too happy to do so for me whenever I needed.
And that is the way it was! Time and again he assisted me through bureaucratic problems writing strong letters of support to his colleagues after convincing himself. He helped me iron out the visa difficulties of two of my friends whom I had sponsored. On at least half a dozen occasions, he helped me organising passes for my guests, who wished to witness the parliamentary debates. And he did all that in full knowledge that I was not likely to vote for him! Even when I left the United Kingdom, I remember how he very kindly forwarded my recommendation for a state honour for one of my colleagues to the minister concerned. And every Christmas, I unfailingly received a card from him.
In the first past the post system, it is essential for everyone to believe that notwithstanding the outcome of the elections, his/her rights are going to be safeguarded…
That I believe is the spirit of democracy and that is why the British system, despite all is flaws, functions so well. In the first past the post system, it is essential for everyone to believe that notwithstanding the outcome of the elections, his/her rights are going to be safeguarded and the representative would work for all the constituents instead of only those who voted for him/her!
Judiciary Upholds Democratic Principles in India
Unfortunately, that has not yet happened in India. Every party that has formed the
government as yet has always attempted to identify its supporters and make sure they were extended the largesse whether they deserved it or not. In the process, they have inevitably hurt those who they perceived were not inclined to support them – at times even violating the tenets of the Constitution. The Indian commitment to democratic principles remains firm and intact as yet but I would largely credit the judiciary rather than executive and legislature for this.
I am a firm believer in the wisdom of the well-known Winston Churchill adage: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
Democracy has to be nurtured in order to ensure its preservation. It does not take much for a flourishing democracy to turn into ‘kakistocracy”- a system of governance where the very worst are entrusted with the reins of power.
It is not surprising that none of the political formations have shown any inclination to bring about electoral reforms in this direction.
I trepidate that we are steadily heading towards a Kakistocratic state. And I happen to believe the prime reason is that the electoral process we have chosen for ourselves is not ensuring a proper election of representatives which surely is a sine qua non. It is not surprising that none of the political formations have shown any inclination to bring about electoral reforms in this direction. Our aim is to ensure that they get the message loud and clear that the status quo which ensures maximal benefits only to the politicians or those who hang on to their coat tails is dismantled! The sooner the better! This is the very least our generation owes to our posterity!
Photos from the Internet