An odd question, I admit, but it must be asked in the light of all that is happening nowadays. The Indian voter stands proudly at the heart of the biggest democratic exercise the world has seen but all the other major agents involved- the political parties, the government, the Election Commission, the media and even the courts- behave as if he is either a mentally challenged halfwit who can be manipulated or a helpless pawn who needs to be protected and molly coddled. As an average voter I resent this attitude because it reeks of contempt and seeks to patronise me.
Most, if not all, political parties and politicians don't really give a damn about the voter or about what principles and values he seeks in his MP or MLA, or what aspirations he himself has. Confident in their calculations of caste, religion and community backed by muscle power and black money, they have traditionally treated him as bonded labour who can do nothing else but their bidding when it comes to pressing that button. Nothing else can explain their unprincipled and degenerate actions leading up to the current elections: giving tickets to people charged with or suspected of serious crimes, crossing over from one party to another shamelessly like a dung beetle moving from one odorous pile to another, foisting pimply faced sons and daughters on the public in a caricature of a rudrabhishek ceremony, expertly avoiding any specific commitment on the daily problems of their constituents. There is not even an attempt to explain how practically all of them become multi-millionaires in just one term and thereafter multiply their mysterious wealth by a factor of five or ten every succeeding term. What hurts and angers me the most is the assumption, behind these actions, that the voter can be taken for granted, that he is a simpleton who can be herded in any direction they wish, that he completely lacks the capacity to critically analyse their performance in the last five years or their unholy antics leading up to these elections, and that he will be eternally grateful for the privilege of being allowed to vote for them.
The media also shows little respect for the average voter, a trend which has become more pronounced since the proliferation of the electronic media. It does dis-service to itself and the voter by seeking to influence news instead of honestly reporting or analysing it. The practice of planting " paid news" has been confirmed and documented in a report submitted to the Press Council of India by its own committee headed by Pranjoy Guha Thakurta( though the Council has discredited itself by not making the report public), the manner in which opinion polls are sold to the highest bidder( read political party) has been exposed by a media channel itself in a sting operation, the conduct of some channels in circulating doctored video footage to discredit inconvenient personalities has been amply exhibited in the incident concerning Shazia Ilmi just before the Delhi elections, and the attempt to blatantly shove a preconceived view down the voter's throat is amply demonstrated by the biased and slanted panel "discussions" ( sometimes also termed " debates" to give them more respectability) of the Arnab Goswami variety. The ownership of media channels and publications is something which is not openly discussed, though it deserves to be, for it shall expose the industry-media-politician connection, the tainted tip of which has already been revealed by the Radia tapes. And when someone raises the issue( read Kejriwal) the Editors' Guild and the News Broadcasters' Association come down on him like a ton of bricks. The voter certainly has the right to the truth but large sections of the media conspire with the politicians to deny him this fundamental right. What makes the media act in this manner is nothing but the same sentiment that drives the politician-viz. that the voter is a gullible idiot who can be eye-balled into a voting position.
The government too uses every opportunity to try to con the voter, from trying to ban opinion polls( instead of regulating them) to postponing elections( in Delhi) to a more favourable time, to offering sops to targetted sections in a desperate race to beat the Code of Conduct( declaring Jats as OBCs, raising the LPG cylinder cap to twelve, seeking to withdraw cases against potential allies like Lalu and Mayawati). All this is based on the presumption that the voter cannot see beyond his nose( or through these obvious strategems). Occasionally a well intentioned judiciary, seeking its own share of fashionable activism, also falls into the same trap of under-rating the voter and issues orders that defy logic. The 2013 order of the Allahabad High Court that prohibited caste or community based rallies falls in this category. The ( wholly erroneous) presumption behind this judgement was that such rallies would inflame caste/communal passions and that the average citizen could not be trusted to behave in a rational and law-abiding manner. But it ignored the constitutional right of any section of society to come together for any legal purpose, including the voicing of grievances and demands. Fortunately this order was set aside in appeal but it scares me that a High Court can even have a thought process that results in such orders.
The organisation that has the poorest opinion of the voter, strangely enough, is the Election Commission of India! Now, I do not wish to be misunderstood-I sincerely believe that over the last twenty years or so the ECI has done a fantastic job of conducting elections, minimising electoral malpractices, increasing voter participation and giving the most deprived sections of our society access to the ballot. It has demonstrably strengthened the election process and mechanism. Where it has erred, in my view, is in going overboard in trying to needlessly insulate the voter from any corrupting " influence" of the government of the day or any other political party ( based on the same faulty premise that the others are guilty of-viz. that the voter cannot be trusted to think for himself and needs Big Brother to decide what is good for him.) In the process it has taken on far too much, has become what Jairam Ramesh rightly calls a " parallel government", and has actually ended up harming the very citizen and system it has sought to serve.
At the heart of the Commission's overreach is its belief that the government must be brought to a standstill
to ensure a " level playing field" and prevent any " influencing" of the voter. I shall discuss these terms later, but in simple terms what it means is that the government( state or central) cannot take any policy decision, award any contract, make any appointment or promotion or transfer of a govt. employee, sanction any funds etc. once elections are notified. Simply in order to understand how damaging for the country this dictum is, consider only some of the decisions which the government has been prevented from taking over the last one month. The Indian Navy is in a mess which compelled the Navy chief to resign three weeks back, but the government cannot appoint his successor. Forty percent of India's villages have no banking penetration, we desperately need new Banks, the govt. has finalised the selection of new licencees but it is prohibited from issuing the licences. The Delhi Metro is ready to roll out its next phase in the NCR areas but it cannot begin work till elections are over: it cannot even award work contracts( and when it hopefully does so after May 16 the bidders would in all probability have revised their prices, causing a cascading delay and price escalation to the project). Air Asia will have to wait another few months before it can obtain approvals to begin operations. KG Basin gas prices had been notified to go up from 1st April but the Commission has stayed this. ( I am no supporter of this increase but what I am concerned with here is the principle- how can an executive decision of an elected govt., taken BEFORE notification of elections, not found to be illegal by a court, be stayed by the Commission?). In all probability the Commission shall also stay the notification of the RBI's Monetary Policy Statement due on 1st April 2014 because it may( in fact, is bound to) have an effect on interest rates and CRR and money supply.
These are only some instances that come to mind. A govt. which was already in a state of stasis has now been completely paralysed. The economy has been effectively shut down for four months. What kind of signals are we sending to the international investors? How can the growth rate for the next fiscal improve if all major economic decisions are put in limbo for the first quarter? Will all this not eventually impact on the common citizen in terms of national security, employment, access to financial services, more competitive airline fares, urban connectivity? How does the voter gain by this draconian overreach of the Election Commission?
This completely misplaced " Big Brother knows best" mindset keeps the Commission busy with trivial non-issues: covering all elephant statues lest it give an undue advantage to the BSP, determining that there should not be more than four vehicles in a candidate's cavalcade, attempting to ban opinion polls, monitoring of social media, ordering that poll manifestos should not contain " unrealistic" promises, acting as a moral referee when candidates abuse each other, asking a Chief Minister( Akhilesh Yadav) not to resort to tele-conferencing with his district officers, disallowing bar girls from performing at a candidate's rallies, and so on. Does the Commission really believe that in this day and age these actions influence a voter in casting his vote? It appears to me that these exertions by the Commission are a complete waste of time and money and indicative of the low esteem in which it holds the voter.
Instead of tilting at these windmills the Commission would do better to focus on, and take bold initiatives towards eradicating, the real issues that vitiate elections. I shall mention just two. First, the Model Code of Conduct. It is a comprehensive code to ensure fair campaigning; it is also a lot of thunder and lightning signifying nothing: its violation attracts headlines and nothing else. Ex Chief Election Commissioner Quereshi admitted on a TV programme today that a large number of FIRs had been filed over the last few elections regarding its violation but not a single case had resulted in conviction! Some state governments had even withdrawn the cases after the elections! The Commission should take steps to rectify this rather than register another FIR because Hema Malini had eight cars in her cavalcade instead of four. It should press the government to set up special courts for these cases and make their trials time bound.
The second, and perhaps the critical, issue is the criminalisation of Parliament and state Assemblies. According to the Association of Democratic Rights there are 162 MPs with criminal cases against them, of which 76 are accused of heinous offences such as murder, rape,kidnapping and dacoity. In the state Assemblies, out of about 4600 MLAs more than 1250 are similarly accused. What is the Commission doing about this? It claims to have written to the govt. many times to disqualify candidates against whom charges have been framed, but with no response. This is simply going through the motions. The Election Commission is a constitutional and totally autonomous body. What prevents it from filing a writ in the Supreme Court to force the central govt to carry out the required amendments to the Representation of People Act? Does it expect the Court to take up all such matters suo-moto or on references by civil society groups only while it itself goes about counting how many plates were served at a candidate's dinner?
No one takes the voter seriously but perhaps that will change soon. With more than 120 million internet users and about 40 million Face-bookers, with 270 million voters under the age of 25, with the traditional urban-rural divide disappearing rapidly, the voter will soon be ready to take matters in his own hands. I have a feeling that the current Parliamentary election will give us the first preview of the better polity that lies just over the horizon. The voter is not as stupid as he looks.