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Challenges ahead

Print edition : Jun 01, 2007 T+T-
N. Gopalaswamy, Chief Election Commissioner.-

N. Gopalaswamy, Chief Election Commissioner.-

Mayawati is a dynamic leader with massive public support, but how does one channel her energies in the right direction?

Hats off to Mayawati for her determined electoral campaign, which has brought her back to power in Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) for the fourth time. She has to be lauded for her political adroitness and personal courage. For a moment I would not like to talk about her other traits during her earlier spells of governance, which did not exactly endear her to those who believe in probity and a sense of balance in public administration.

Another individual who deserves encomiums is Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) N. Gopalaswamy. A genteel and clear-headed bureaucrat, he has further enhanced the credibility of the Commission, which owes its present stature to the sinews lent by T.N. Seshan more than a decade ago. It is one thing to benefit by adhering to what a successful predecessor achieved in a particular public office. It is an entirely different proposition to improve on such a tradition. Gopalaswamy has done this in U.P., of course with the complementary role played by his two colleagues in the Commission. What is striking is the unity displayed by the three gentlemen who have done us proud, whatever the vanquished Mulayam Singh might have to say about them. One who loses a battle has to invariably find an alibi, which in this case comes in the form of a hyperactive Election Commission.

According to Mulayam, the Election Commission functioned like a parallel government and was obstructing the entire electoral process. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Commission saw to it that voters were not intimidated and felt safe to go to the booths. Law and order was admirably maintained, much to the annoyance and disappointment of those who were banking on the strategy of chasing away their detractors. If this was a sin, Gopalaswamy and company will have to pay for it.

The CEC was on television a few days after the results were announced telling us that all political parties in U.P., barring perhaps the ruling Samajwadi Party (S.P.), were clear that they did not trust the State Police to ensure a free and fair poll. That is why Central forces had to be imported by the Commission in massive numbers. What a tribute to the objectivity of a State apparatus. Do not ever think that this is the case in U.P. alone. In every State, the same is the story, that is, the local police are biased and partisan and will act unabashedly to promote the fortunes of those in power. This is the shameful situation even 60 years after Independence, and we call ourselves a progressive nation.

It is the very same parties, namely, the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and so on, which were in the fray in U.P., that opposed tooth and nail to reformation of the police on the lines suggested by the National Police Commission, which the Supreme Court endorsed for implementation in its directive of October 21, 2006. This would effectively mean that when a party is in the Opposition, it would want a neutral police, but when the same party assumes office, it would insist on the police dancing to its tunes.

Why cannot the Election Commission lead the pro-reform lobby and ensure that the police are converted into a non-partisan outfit, not just during elections but at all times? This may appear ludicrous, but desperate measures like these are required if the Indian police are to shake off their current pathetic image and become a professional service.

Mayawati's success is attributed to her link-up with the "upper castes" in the State. She herself has gone to town acknowledging her debt to them. It is again shameful that politics in the country still relies so heavily on caste loyalties. No one, including the Prime Minister, has expressed any disapproval of this. Kapil Sibal, an artful Congress spokesperson, says that his was about the only party that shunned casteism in fighting elections. If so, why is it that the party does not berate the crass casteism that dominates U.P. and the rest of the country? Can he promise us that the Congress will not align itself with any leader who breathes and nurtures casteism?

The caste alignments forged by Mayawati bode ill for social peace, not merely in U.P. but all over the country. What we now see is a polarisation of forces into two groups: Dalits and "upper castes" versus the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). To add fuel to fire, Mayawati speaks of the need for reservation for the economically deprived among the "upper castes". This is likely to provoke the OBCs beyond measure. It might lead on to social tension and eruption of major clashes between the two sides. I am certain that I am not inventing the future scenario. I am not, however, sure how far Mayawati will be able to carry the Dalits with her, alongside a pledge to improve the conditions of "upper castes". Nevertheless, this is in my view a serious development that has implications for peace in society.

I am equally concerned with how Mayawati would handle the police. If the past is any guide, there is need for extreme concern. With no indications of her readiness to abjure her vindictive politics, the U.P. police are in for a rough time. She has already ordered mass transfers. Only insiders will know how much of it is merited and how many shifts are the result of pique and caprice. The victims of her arbitrariness can never complain because a Chief Minister is too powerful for a civil servant to take on.

I remember during her last tenure, District Magistrates (D.M.) and District Superintendents of Police used to dread her visits, none of which ended without at least one suspension. The joke was if Mayawati had a D.M. for breakfast, there was to be a Superintendent of Police (S.P.) for lunch, and possibly a District Forest Officer for supper. I know of S.Ps being suspended for a slight rise in crime figures in their jurisdiction. In this ambience, which systematically promoted fear and servility, how can the civil service or the police do their best?

Recently one television channel gave the number of criminals who are now members of the U.P. legislature. Mayawati has accommodated some of them in her Cabinet. Can there be anything more objectionable? Assuming that some of them had been framed by the Mulayam government - an assumption that may be wide of the mark - could not the Chief Minister have waited for their papers to be examined and drawn them into the Ministry only after their names were cleared? If I remember right, I saw one of the Ministers-to-be speaking from jail. How can a Chief Minister who has in her Cabinet people with a conviction record, or are otherwise considered to have a criminal background, maintain law and order with credibility? Salvation can come only if politicians pay heed to saner elements such as the CEC who are clear that people with criminal records should be ruthlessly kept out of the electoral process until they are absolved of the charges. Without any quibbling whatsoever, the CEC says that a candidate with a charge sheet for crime pending for six months before an election should be debarred from contesting. This will take care of the criticism that a tendentious charge sheet could be filed against some prospective candidates just before an election is announced. The CEC's suggestion, which he describes as his personal view that has not been discussed with anybody else, is worth serious consideration if we are serious about cleansing politics.

Mayawati is a dynamic leader. She enjoys massive public support, the sine qua non of meaningful democratic politics. She is considered by some as an uncut diamond.

If so, how do we set about the task of channelling her energies in the right direction? How do we ensure that she adheres to the fundamentals of the rule of law? How do we make her understand that vindictiveness in public life may succeed only for a while? Here, I would expect the President, Vice-President and the Prime Minister to play a positive role. Counselling her may not be part of their charter. But being men of great maturity and credibility, they can still go out of their way to help smooth her rough edges.

There is a fourth dignitary available right in Lucknow. Governor T.V. Rajeswar is a seasoned civil servant who has the sagacity and patience for this unusual role of restraining Mayawati so that she concentrates on the essentials of governance, of which maintaining law and order is an essential component.

Let us hope that a chastened Mayawati will turn around U.P., a State that by all accounts, is in a bad shape, notwithstanding Amitabh Bachchan's poetic claims to the contrary in a commercial telecast ad nauseam on the eve of the elections. If she does perform above our expectations, her prime ministerial ambitions cannot be dismissed as mere wishful thinking.