Will the elections be peaceful?

Published : May 08, 2009 00:00 IST

Activists of a voluntary organisation protesting against criminals contesting the parliamentary elections, in New Delhi on March 14.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

Activists of a voluntary organisation protesting against criminals contesting the parliamentary elections, in New Delhi on March 14.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

AS I write this column on the eve of the first phase of polling for a new Lok Sabha, I perceive widespread fears that the election this time will be more violent than in the past. I know it is customary to say this every time we have elections. In a country where the quality of politics is vitiated by money power and all that goes with it, it does not require extraordinary intelligence to make such a bold prediction. This time, however, the apprehension is well merited if one goes by the more-than-usual personal acrimony between leaders of rival formations at the national and regional levels.

The exchanges between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party leaders are in particular painful even to an objective commentator, however entertaining they may be to the average television viewer. Also, the stakes are much higher than before for any one group, however small it might be, to let go an opportunity to share power at the Centre and enjoy (read misuse) the fruits of office.

It is now well established that a party taking part in a coalition government can abuse its privileges and get away with no penalty whatsoever. And the incentives are far higher at the Centre than in the States. This is why a no-holds-barred fight for every seat that can be won is very much on the cards. The means used will just not count. Ideological differences will all be buried in the post-election scenario to cobble up an alliance, mainly to share in the booty by garnering lucrative portfolios.

Whether one likes it or not, the Indian polity is stuck with too many regional parties. For the foreseeable future, the trend seems irreversible. Those who are opposed to the rise of regional parties say that this is not a welcome phenomenon because, unlike national parties, these outfits may not be expected to adhere to the fundamental principles of dignified political conduct. They believe that a large national formation has a reputation to lose and a future to look forward to, and hence its leadership will steer the group along responsible lines.

Some recent utterances by those who belong to such all-India parties do not, however, inspire confidence. Incitement to violence on sectarian grounds and open threats to public servants who have to ensure fair elections by those who held public office in the past does not augur well for the peaceful conduct of elections and also for the future of our polity.

In politics, violence and money power go together. The sums of money that I hear are in circulation in most parts of the country are mind-boggling. The purchase of votes has become common and has made a mockery of the whole electoral process . More despicable is the use of money to set goons on rival party workers. With so much money available to many parties, I expect a greater use of it this time to engineer lawlessness. Few parties, except perhaps the Leftists, are saints in this respect. Until a decade ago, the south compared favourably with the north. Not any longer. The Election Commission (E.C.) is a helpless spectator. It lacks the bite required to instil fear in those indulging in unfair practices. The noises it makes are symbolic because it does not have the needed clout.

The credentials of some candidates are highly questionable, to put it mildly. The statistics of members in the last Lok Sabha who had a criminal record are forbidding. The picture is more depressing in the case of State Assemblies. As long as we are unable to cure this malady, our politics will remain muddy. Almost every party has a quota of criminals. Ironically, some of them acquire the authority to make law after having deliberately violated it. A major lacuna in the Representation of the People Act is that it permits individuals facing a criminal charge in a court to contest elections. This is on the specious plea that no one can be considered guilty unless convicted in a court of law. And you know how long trials last in our country, enabling many to remain in public office with impunity for years.

It is this permissiveness that encourages violence at election time. Any improvement in this area can come about only with an amendment to the election law that will bar an individual from contesting if a charge-sheet is pending against him or her in court. Many political parties allege that if there were such a law, the ruling party would manipulate election-eve charge-sheets against their rivals. This argument can be taken care of partially by ensuring that a charge-sheet filed six months before the notification of an election will be taken into account while examining the validity of nomination of a candidate. It is not very difficult to arrive at a political consensus on this issue.

The fundamental test of electoral fairness comes on the actual election date. How does one ensure that everyone who wants to exercise his or her franchise feels secure enough to go the assigned booth and cast his or her vote? The task boils down to one of protecting the minorities and weaker sections so that they can confidently take part in the process. The E.C. has done its bid by staggering the polling over a month so that enough security forces are available.

Even after this commendable exercise, policemen are thinly spread across the huge number of booths in a constituency, making it easy for miscreants to indulge in intimidation. Re-polling at centres, from where there are credible reports of such intimidation, is the only answer.

What about the ability of police forces themselves to remain neutral during the polling process? The E.C. is acutely conscious of this. Wherever individual officers had come to its notice for partisanship, it has ordered their removal. This is good only as far as it goes. What about other policemen in the field? It is too much to expect them to be neutral if the ruling party men indulge in questionable tactics, including scaring away groups who are definitely known for their aversion to the party in power. Under the present scheme of things, when nothing has been done to ensure operational autonomy on the lines suggested by the National Police Commission (1977) and the Supreme Court (September 2005), the police will continue to be the handmaiden of those in power. They will be penalised if they display any enthusiasm for working to achieve a fair poll.

I still remember how an Inspector General of Police was removed from office about four decades ago simply because he saw to it that protection was given to members of a minority community who were determined to vote against the ruling party. Not only that. He was eased out of his official residence, which was promptly converted into an office building. The poor man died within a few months of a heart attack. In my view, such vindictiveness still dominates the higher echelons of the political hierarchy. Also, in the present times, no Director General of Police will ever stick his neck out if his Chief Minister is known to be opposed to a group and wants it to be prevented from voting. He may not connive at this, but he will certainly look the other way. This is the extent to which our police forces have been emasculated.

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