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Sunday, 6 December 1998

Seshan's Hidden Ally - Vanishing Tolerance for Misfeasance


(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)


Revolutionaries are often less the creators of events than the
beneficiaries of circumstances. Had Russia not been bled of its
human and material treasure by World War I, it is difficult to
conceive of the Bolsheviks capturing the state. It was only when
the other organised forces dissolved that a small, fanatical group
of individuals was able to wrest—and hold on to—authority.
Similarly, the rise of Adolf Hitler in 1922-33 Germany can only
be understood in the context of the twin blows of national shame
over its defeated status (a status repeatedly emphasised by,
among the victors, the French) and a collapsed currency. Had the
Weimar republic dealt with statesmen rather than political
pygmies in Paris and London, it may have survived the Nazi 
party.

Such thoughts come to mind when discussing the "revolution"
in Indian elections that has been wrought under a Chief Election 
Commissioner not at all awed by politicians and their trappings.
Going by the spirit rather than the letter of the law, T.N. Seshan 
has been the cause of a significant reduction of election
expenditure. The steady explosion in the costs of waging a
campaign has been smothered, so much so that in many parts of 
the two states where assembly elections are due to take place, life
is almost normal apart from the odd banner or campaign vehicle.

Praise for Seshan
While Seshan deserves praise for taking at face value the
moralistic pretensions of the political class, and threatening
sanctions should they deviate from them, a considerable part of
his victory may be due to the steadily increasing accountability
which the Indian voter is demanding from the candidates. For
decades, in election after election, voters would obey their
sarpanches or their caste heads and vote for a symbol selected for
them. It was only a quarter century after freedom—in 1971 to be
exact—that large groups of voters broke away from such tutelage
and, in the secrecy of the polling booth, returned to power Indira
Gandhi with her garibi hatao programme, only to defeat her in
1977 when she focused less on abolishing garibi than on
Incarcerating her opponents.

Although the post 1971 elections showed that a full war
chest did not necessarily translate into political success—both
the Janata party, which won in 1977, and the Congress, which
returned to power in 1980, spent far less in the campaign than
its major opponent—the message did not register at the rarefied
level of the political leader. Perhaps more for reasons of personal
advantage than due to a careful calculus of electoral outcomes,
many politicians in power spent vast amounts of time collecting
funds. However, to take the state of Karnataka as an example,
such collections did not save Gundu Rao's Congress in 1983 or
Ramakrishna Hegde’s Janata Dal in 1989, the same year in which
Rajiv Gandhi's well-financed national campaign ended in a rout.

Lower Tolerance
The explanation behind these and similar defeats is the lower
tolerance of the Indian voter to financial misdemeanours. A
political party that spent huge amounts of money in a campaign
would generate questions as to the source. At some point,
increases in spending would turn away rather than attract votes.
However, like the ghostly sensation in a limb even after it has
been amputated, candidates who could raise resources freely,
spent them. It has taken the warning of Seshan to persuade them
about the reality of the amputation of expenditure from result.

Thanks to the supposed fear of action by the Election
Commission—an ‘action’ that can have only a very flimsy legal
foundation—most candidates, even from parties as well-heeled
as the Congress and the BJP, have cut down their campaign
expenditure.

It is clear from experience that had there not been a widening
voter revulsion against lavish election expenditure, the political
class would have scoffed at Seshan’s edict in the same manner
that they ignored all past limits to expenditure. As Narasimha
Rao's spectacular victory at Nandyal showed, even the Election
Commission is sometimes selective in the pursuit of violations,
Even if it were not, it still would have to rely on local officials
for confirmation of breaches of its orders, and not all these
officials may share the Chief Election Commissioner’s enthusiasm
for polls not vitiated by money power.

It has been—and is—fashionable to deride the print media,
most notably the English language press, as reaching only a
handful of individuals, and thus exercising scant influence over
electoral outcomes. Such theorising neglects to take into account
the fact that while a newspaper may be read by ’only’ a few
hundred thousand people, opinions expressed in it will frequently
filter through to non-readers. Thus the total number of individuals
accessing the views expressed in a newspaper would be several 
times greater than the sum of its actual buyers. Such a process
took place between 1987 and 1989 when corruption swept to the
top of the national agenda—a process that had its origin in 
newspaper headlines and which resulted in the assumption of 
office by a politician identified in the public mind with the
morality crusade, V.P. Singh. It was only after his moral veneer
became frayed that many of his colleagues grew bold enough to
dethrone him.

The print media is one of the few major industries in this
country that has remained almost wholly private. This implies
that for its constituents, a healthy bottom line is a prerequisite for
survival, there being no budgetary subsidy to draw from. The
market being the prime determinant of the bottom line, the print
media needs for its survival to address the needs of its ’market'
i.e. the reading public. In the main, this is the putting in place of
a system of government which is administered impartially and
transparently. Thus, for their own survival—if not for nobler
motives—the print media will need to energetically point out the
defects and deficiencies in the way the system is being run.
Those segments of it which do not will soon find the market
shifting away to others.

Print Media
Hence the 'playing up' by the print media of perceived fighters
for transparency as Khairnar and Seshan. Such 'over-exposure'
has the further benefit of camouflaging a less than wholehearted
diligence on the part of the media in uncovering instances of
political and other misfeasance. However, in the course of this
decade, even the faint-hearted and the public relations-oriented
will need to inject both bluntness and investigative depth into
their coverage in order to retain relevance for the reader. That
’newspapers play up only negative news' is a lament frequently
heard by editors and publishers. However, the political leaders
making it forget (or pretend to) that the genesis of much that
they do which is positive is the fear of the publicity given to that
which is negative. Also, if it really has been the creation of a
public opinion less tolerant of misfeasance that has aided Seshan
in his drive to reduce election expenditure, it is the same opinion
that has made the print media more adventurous in its exposes.

However, although its head may be in favour of such a
course, the heart of the print media still beats for the ancient
regime. How else to explain the continuing preoccupation with
such "heavyweights" as Arjun Singh, Sharad Pawar and
N.D. Tiwari as possible prime minister despite their somewhat
"conventional" political past as opposed to the patently more
"clean" politicians like Manmohan Singh and A.K. Antony? Why
are these two considered political lightweights? Is it because
they have no scandals weighing them down? If so, it is a telling
commentary not on our society - which has evolved substantially
since 1947 - but on our political class and the media which
project it.



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