The problem

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JUST how successful has been our experience with democracy? Even the harshest critics of the Indian experiment admit, albeit grudgingly, that democracy is one value which has entered deep into the country’s psyche. Barring the brief and dark interregnum of the Emergency (1975-77), we have ‘successfully’ managed to hold 13 general elections and many more to state assemblies. And of late, after the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, the electoral process has been extended downwards to the panchayats and municipalities.

More remarkable is the less noticed fact that despite the many shortcomings, faith in the process and system has not declined, most of all among groups and communities relatively inequitously positioned. If anything, it appears that those less well endowed participate in greater numbers and with enthusiasm. Clearly, democratic elections are viewed as a favourable instrumentality to discipline and alter the character of the power structure, if not share in decision making.

That this has happened in a billion plus society marked by a mind-boggling diversity and social cleavages, poor, illiterate and conflict-ridden is cause for some satisfaction. Yet, from its inception, the system has been criticized for its unrepresentative character, for being distorted by both money and muscle power. Worse, the process over time has been attacked for adding to divisiveness and exacerbating tensions.

Within sections of the educated middle and professional classes, both politicians and politics have come to acquire a negative connotation. Charges of the criminalization of politics, the violence that accompanies the electoral process, the horse-trading and corruption marking the functioning of the legislatures, and so on, are the staple fare of editorials. In brief, parliamentary democracy, both its specific from and in itself has come to seen by an influential section of our people as inefficacious, slow and noisy, if not a foreign implant ill-suited to our national culture and genius. Little wonder that there are frequent cries for reforming the system.

Making sense of the discourse on electoral/ political reforms is not easy, not the least because of a widely prevalent institutional fetishism that some quick-fix solution will rid the system of its perceived ills. The most common among them are proposals to reduce the influence of money and muscle power. From banning people with criminal records, a demand that has gained strength in the recent case of Jayalalitha or earlier that of Laloo Yadav, to limiting permissible expenditures on elections, or introducing state financing are common suggestions.

Equally widespread is the unease about defections, the lack of functioning of legislatures, the strain generated by coalition politics. This too has grown ever since the system moved from a one-party dominance model to having to accommodate a multiplicity of parties – many regional or sectional. Doubts are thus raised whether this system is well suited to subserve national interest, howsoever defined.

From the Tarkunde Committee set up by the Citizens for Democracy in the wake of the Emergency to the recent proposals put forward by the Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, the refrain is clear: how to make the system more manageable. Should the country experiment with a proportional or list system as against the first past the post system? Should legislatures be made more accountable by introducing the constructive vote of no confidence such that the business of the House does not suffer from frequent demands for the resignation of the government or some small party threatening to withdraw support.

Should defections be banned? Or should legislators be forced to follow party whips? Equally, should political parties be made constitutional entities, forced into becoming democratic and accountable entities? Parties which become pocket boroughs of individuals/families can hardly be expected to contribute to wider democratic accountability.

Less discussed, though fundamental, are measures to clean up voter lists or the delimitation of constituencies. The last Presidential election in the U.S., where the current incumbent’s victory was marred by accusations of gerry-mandering of voter lists in the state of Florida, has shown how elections can be hijacked by knocking individuals/groups off the voter lists. In India too, studies indicate that the extent of error in rolls could be as high as 15-20% what to speak of false voting. If true, the very legitimacy of many of our results would come to be questioned. Equally, the process by which we decide on the number of seats in different states. Is there a logic by which we can rationalize freezing the strength of the Parliament and the seat distribution among states on the basis of the 1971 Census? Does this not violate the principle of equal weightage for each vote?

It is not difficult to add to the list of concerns and proposals, be they technical like introducing electronic voting machines or substantive like seeking to rework the nature of representation in our legislatures. The proposal to reserve a third of the seats in Parliament and state assemblies for women falls in the latter camp. So does the plea to extend the principle of political reservation, so far available to scheduled castes and tribes, to religious minorities.

We want our political institutions and processes to be fair, open, egalitarian, representative and participative – preferably with a progressive bias. This is as it should be. What is more contestable is the desire to introduce correctives by changing the Constitution and altering institutional design. Such interventions carry unforeseen consequences that may be difficult to reverse; they also undermine the importance and autonomy of the political process. Already, with the subtle shift in the power relationships between the executive, judiciary and legislatures and the foregrounding of institutions (IMF, WB, WTO), some non-national, that the process of globalization has strengthened, there is apprehension about the viability of elected representatives and bodies reflecting the will of the people.

Finally, to return to an earlier theme. Much of the thinking on electoral/political reforms is informed by concerns of management/governability. The constant refrain about too many parties, over-frequent elections, or the need to place restrictions on who can be our representatives is a reflection of our fear, a middle class fear, that the political field is being taken over by people unlike us. There is thus need for a greater and self-conscious engagement with our proposals.

There is little doubt that the practice of modern politics is both liberating and exclusionary, that it is marked by many distortions that impede engaged participation. There is need for reform, even radical reform. But equally of exercising caution and care so that our proposals, even when well-intentioned, do not result in consequences opposed to values that we espouse. This issue of Seminar presents a spectrum of proposals which hopefully will contribute to meaningful debate.