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Thursday, 30 September 1999

The Silence of the Lambs: Party Elections and the EC


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


After the tumult of the Seshan years, it is refreshing to have the
status quo ante restored, in which the Election Commission takes
a "Boys will be boys" attitude towards "elections" in which the
result gets planned in advance. Tirunellayi Natarajan Seshan,
barbarian that he was, refused to ignore such minor flaws in the
electoral process as the use of money, liquor and goondu power
to ensure ballot stuffing. By threats and cajoling, he got conducted
elections that were genuine expressions of the voters' will, except
in such strongholds of "People’s Democracy" as Bengal and
Bihar. Clearly this went against the ethos that "the Leader knows
best," the ethos that has made India what it is today.

Fortunately, these days the Election Commission appears to
have become more reasonable. Now the EC issues some orders
and the politicians flout them. Thereafter the EC members go
before the idiot box to threaten vengeance. Immediately the
politicians come before the EC and hang their heads to chest
level, at which our gallant commissioners forgive them and
allow them to get away with what they did before. Clearly an
improvement over the Seshan period, when (unelected) tribunes
of the masses went away unhappy at the EC’s failure to recognise
that public weal was conterminous with theirs.

It is in this new kinder, gentler era that the "elections" for the
presidentship of the Congress and the Janata Dal are taking
place. By a careful selection of returning officers, who have been
given mystical powers to determine who the winners and who
the losers are in each local election without so much as sniffing
a ballot, the Sitaram Kesri camp has ensured the victory of its
hero.

As evidence of the overwhelming public support to the Bihar
veteran, one may point to the fact that both the Cleans—A. K.
Antony and Manmohan Singh—are supporting him. They 
represent the middle class, now a major factor in "liberalised"
India. 

Political chanakyas, represented by R. K. Dhawan and Arjun 
Singh, are also with Kesri. The brahmins are with him, as proved 
by the support of Jitendra Prasada. The dalits are with him, as 
as been made clear by the presence of Meira Kumar in his 
camp. The minorities are totally on his side, as Ahmed Patel and 
Oscar Fernandes prove. With such overwhelming support, it
would be churlish to demand a free and transparent poll
Fortunately, the Election Commission is not doing so.   

Neither does the EC appear concerned with the goings-on in 
the Janata Dal where too the party president is both player and 
umpire. 

As that party has not yet become fully congressised, there are 
still flickers of resistance to Laloo Prasad Yadav’s attempts to 
convert the Janata Dal into a Nehru Family Congress, with 
Laloo’s charming brood as the sole proprietors. Had the horrible  
Seshan continued in office, the EC may have demanded to
scrutinise the list of electors and the process by which they have
been selected. In the case of both Congress as well as the Janata
Dal, the list of delegates appears to have been conjured up in the
air-conditioned rooms that are the natural habitat of dynasty 
politicians. How such a process is congruent with "inner-party
democracy" is not clear except perhaps to our Election
commissioners.

To less realised minds, it appears that democracy within
political parties is almost an essential condition for healthy
electoral politics. Should backroom bosses continue to control
the distribution of tickets, they will go on tailoring the political
process to their advantage. Unless the base—level workers within 
political parties have a decisive say in selection of candidates
as takes place in the US, for instance—the individuals who are 
given tickets will owe responsibility only to the bosses who 
selected them.

Thus the enforcing of inner-party democracy is crucial to
taking the electoral process in India such that it throws up a
political class that eliminates rather than covers up graft, Thus
it would appear that, if one looks at responsibilities in the spirit
of the Constitution rather than in a narrow technical sense, an
investigation into how elections are now being conducted within
these two major parties is well within the jurisdiction of the
Election Commission.

However, one should not blame the EC members for their
silence over the antics of the leaders of the JD and the Congress.
These days there are often two or even four lunches, dinners and
receptions to attend. There are the fatiguing sessions with TV
presenters.

There are the delightful tete-a-tetes with social and political
lions. Certainly the life of a Defender of Democracy in India is
not an easy one. Small wonder that bagatelles such as the
packing of delegates’ lists goes unnoticed. After all, one must
stick to the letter of the law without worrying about the objectives
of the legislation. One must above all be reasonable, especially
to Leaders.

Sadly for the Leaders, there appears to be a tectonic shift
even within political parties in India. Apart from such upholders
of the rights of the individual as Kanshi Ram’s BSP or Balasaheb
Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, most major parties in India have broken
away from the dynasty formula that parties are the property of
their leaders. Within the Janata Dal, a puny Samantaray is
challenging Emperor Laloo. And in the Congress, Sharad Pawar,
the quintessential knuckler-under, has thus far refused to step
back in line and chant hosannas to the one individual whose
brilliance and dynamism are sure to energise the Congress all
over India the way it has got done in Bihar. But for his carefully-
prepared lists of delegates, Kesri would almost certainly have
lost the election.

As it is, after he wins he is likely to face the same problems
as Z.A. Bhutto did after his massive victory in 1977. Questions
will get raised about methods, lawsuits may get filed.

Unhappily for the Leaders, the courts have not adopted the
ways of the new-look (or don’t-look) Election Commission. Our
judges are. still firm on accountability and transparency, led as
they are by Chief justice J. S. Verma. However, such matters
evidently no longer worry the Election Commission.

What a relief from Seshan and his obsession with fair
elections. These days, "inner-party" democracy appears to have
gone the way of identity cards for voters. And what of it?
There’s the Swiss ambassadofs dinner tonight, while tomorrow
that charming socialite has promised to call. It's a busy, busy
time. 



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