The pulse of Indian democracy

Print edition : April 12, 2019

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JANUARY 1980: Indira Gandhi addressing Congress supporters in New Delhi after her victory in the Lok Sabha election. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Muslim women at a polling station in Varanasi during the first phase of the Lok Sabha election on April 16, 2009. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

A survey of the advances in Indian psephology that also reveals serious flaws in Indian electoral practices.

IN 1980, two young economists—Prannoy Roy and Ashok Lahiri—predicted that the Congress party would sweep the seventh Lok Sabha election. Psephology, or the study of elections, had a chequered history in India until then. India, with its vast population and hugely diverse cultures, posed a serious challenge for the pollster: what is an adequate sample, how to convert polls that tell you about voting patterns into seats won? Most polls before 1980, such as the ones conducted by the Indian Institute of Public Opinion or the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, either provided a simple thumbnail of views or studied voting patterns after the elections. Roy and Lahiri put their heads into the mouth of the lion, studied the trends that led to this highly contested election and forecast a win for the Congress over the Janata Party. They were right.

Roy and Lahiri had begun to understand some fundamental aspects of Indian elections, notably that India’s electoral landscape needed to be seen from the State-level upwards that the fragmentation of parties is an indicator of the possibility that one party, with the highest, but not even near 50 per cent of the vote, would be able to sweep the election and that the Indian electorate, much more literate by 1980, had begun to judge candidates at the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections by their performance rather than their reputation.

In the past few decades, Roy has established himself as an important voice on Indian elections and electoral reform. From the beginning, Roy worked with the Indian Market Research Bureau headed by Dorab Sopariwala. Now, Roy and Sopariwala have given us The Verdict, an important summary of Indian elections, opinion polls and election forecasts, and on the perils to Indian democracy. It is a swift read. The Verdict is a survey of the advances in Indian psephology that also reveals serious flaws in voting practices in India.

Problems in Indian democracy

More people are voting in India, and performance has become the yardstick for voters. On the surface, India remains a thriving democracy with over 500 million voters turning out in 2014 (which is 66.4 per cent of all eligible voters). At polling booths across the country, there are long lines of voters wanting to express their political views in this non-violent manner. All that is true. But, as Roy and Sopariwala show, there are some problems with Indian democracy.

Firstly, 21 million women are missing from the electoral rolls; approximately 38,000 women in each constituency on average. In Uttar Pradesh, 85,000 women are missing from the rolls in each constituency. This number is far higher than the margin of victory of candidates in the 80 constituencies in this crucial State. Maharashtra and Rajasthan are close behind. Roy and Sopariwala are understandably outraged by this. “Any woman who comes to a polling station in the constituency where she resides and is over eighteen years old,” they write, should “be allowed to vote”. The Supreme Court should pay attention to this problem. It is a blight on Indian democracy.

Not only are 21 million women missing from the rolls, but there is a drop in the number of women candidates contesting elections and, as such, a consequent drop in the number of women representatives in the Lower House. The Women’s Reservation Bill (2008) is in limbo. It had called for a 33 per cent quota for women at the Assembly and parliamentary levels. Between 2002 and 2012, only one in 12 contestants, that is, 8 per cent, were women.

Secondly, there has been a major deterioration in the number of Muslim candidates. The 16th Lok Sabha (2014) had the same low number of Muslim representatives as the first Lok Sabha (1952). The high point of Muslim representation was in 1980-84. There is a simple explanation for the deep decline: the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its anti-Muslim politics. In the 2014 election, the BJP did not nominate a single Muslim candidate in Uttar Pradesh even though one in five of the State’s population is a Muslim.

Thirdly, as precarious employment becomes the norm, and as India’s workforce becomes increasingly footloose, migrants are disenfranchised from the electoral process. Hundreds of millions of Indians migrate around the country and for short periods of time to places such as the Gulf for work. Large numbers of people, insufficient transportation and exorbitant costs for coming home to cast the ballot disenfranchise these millions of voters. No postal voting is provided for them. They are workers without franchise.

Fourthly, as a result of political paralysis, the voting districts for the Lok Sabha have been the same since 1976 and will remain so until 2026. This means votes in one part of India do not have the same heft as votes in another.

According to Roy and Sopariwala, it will take 16 Rajasthani voters to have the same power as 10 Keralites. This means the effectiveness of the slogan “one person, one vote” is no longer viable. In fact, the power of some votes is greater than the power of other votes. These are some of the few alarms sounded by Roy and Sopariwala. Despite these, they retain their faith in the democratic process, asking for reforms on a variety of fronts but no essential change to the system. But there are some grave problems on the horizon. These are indicated in the text, but not developed.

End of democracy?

Here and there, Roy and Sopariwala mention examples of grave political corruption. Candidates and parties hand out bottles of liquor and even household goods and motorcycles to earn goodwill. The culture of money in politics is astounding, with crores of rupees needed to win even Assembly seats and with wild numbers floating around about the amounts spent on Lok Sabha seats. Stories of crores of rupees handed over to political parties and politicians are commonplace, as are stories of ledgers of payouts to politicians kept by large companies. Few of these are investigated. The bourgeois parties benefit from this system. Democratic institutions seem awash with illegal cash contributions and the election drowns in political bribery.

Roy and Sopariwala make an important point about how low voter turnout works to the advantage of the BJP. This is a worldwide phenomenon. The right wing is eager to prevent the masses from coming to the polling booths. This is often a class phenomenon, with the working class and the peasantry, including migrants, unable to reach the polling booths when these are set up far away from their homes and if the method to enrol one’s name in the voter’s list is cumbersome. The right wing has developed the “dark arts of voter suppression”, as Roy and Sopariwala put it, which include basic voter intimidation and fights to introduce onerous voting policies and the production of fake opinion polls to demoralise their opponents. These are clever techniques that are being used in large doses from the United States to Brazil, from India to Poland.

The production of fake news through WhatsApp groups and other communication forms is part of the attempt to foment violence and demoralisation and to dampen enthusiasm for elections.

One of the striking features of the attack on democracy in our times is the use of homeopathic doses of violence against party workers in order to break their will to campaign and against reporters who seem to ask nosey questions. This violence, from Tripura to Gujarat, should be at the front of any discussion of elections in India today. The scientific use of violence by the BJP in Tripura against the Left needs close study—from the physical violence against cadre of the Left parties to the attempt to close down the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s newspaper Daily Desher Katha (including the attempt by the BJP to deregister the paper in 2018). The rapid decline of the Left’s fortunes in Tripura, for instance, is less to do with the lack of political support and more to do with the use of institutional violence to suppress the Left’s base.

Finally, even as the normal hum of electoral democracy goes on, the ruling elites have used sophisticated means to delegitimise popular candidates through the use of the political police and the courts. The arrest of the Rashtriya Janata Party chief Lalu Prasad on corruption charges targeted one of the few politicians who posed a serious challenge in the Hindi heartland to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Lalu Prasad is hardly the only one with the stench of corruption around him, but it was on him that the spotlight shone. What happened to Lalu Prasad is what happened in Brazil to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and what is likely to happen to the leading candidate of the Argentinian Left, Christina Kirschner. In South America, this use of the law to delegitimise a popular candidate before an election is known as a “soft coup” or as “Lawfare”. The way the Central Bureau of Investigation, the political police, is used to crack down on political opponents is a sign of the weakness of the democratic atmosphere in the country.

It would have been charming if the last page of The Verdict carried Roy and Sopariwala’s predictions for this year’s election. But they do not give us that satisfaction. Their analysis shows that the alliance of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.)would have trounced the BJP in 2014 and in the subsequent Assembly elections.

The first past the post system combined with a divided opposition allowed the BJP, for instance, to win a majority in Parliament even though it only won 31 per cent of the vote. In Uttar Pradesh, the alliance of the BSP and the S.P. will not allow opposition votes to be divided excessively and it will prevent the BJP from sweeping the State. If this holds out, and if there is no swing as a result of Modi’s sabre-rattling on the border against Pakistan, then it is unlikely that the BJP will be able to repeat its 2014 result. That is as far as the predictions go in the book.

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