Follow us on


Elections and political evolution

Print edition : Dec 13, 1997 T+T-

TOO much need not be made of the impact of the Jain Commission's Interim Report on the state, or rather evolution, of Indian politics. This is not to say there is any doubt that this farce of a report relating to a horrendous assassination actually brought about the collapse of an arrangement that sustained such Central governance as India has had since the eleventh general election.

It was always recognised that the Congress(I)-United Front arrangement had instability built into it. The Congress(I), whose weight in the national scheme of things had been sharply reduced over successive general elections, was never really reconciled to sustaining from the outside a post-election creature, a 14-party coalition. The only question was when, on what issue or pretext, and to what political end the external supporter would withdraw the minority Government's life-support system. The answer to this question depended, in turn, on what was in it for the Congress(I). What is now clear is that the party's calculations around the value of the Jain Commission report were grossly irresponsible.

In response, the United Front has surprisingly lived up to a literal rather than ironic construction of its name. It has, by refusing to compromise its independence and political dignity, managed to call the Congress(I)'s bluff. When the arrangement was near the end of its life, it was the outside party offering life support that appeared to be the terminally ill patient. Such was the state the Congress(I) had driven itself into through a combination of miscalculation, adventurism and political stupidity.

To an objective view, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appears to have derived some mileage out of the recent political crisis - and its resolution through the decision of the institutions in the system to go in for a fresh general election. The crisis triggered by the Jain Commission's Interim Report served, in the first instance, to divert attention from the potentially huge damage done to the BJP's political stock and image by the Uttar Pradesh developments (refer "The Great Lucknow Circus: The BJP makes a mess of its U.P. coup", Cover Story, Frontline , Nov. 28, 1997). The big political question at this juncture seems to be whether this gain will be marginal or worse - worse, that is, for the polity and the people of India.

But one thing looks pretty much certain: no formation, let alone party, will emerge from the twelfth general election with a majority. The Indian polity appears to be divided into three broad national 'formations' - the BJP and its allies, the 14-party United Front, and the Congress(I) and its allies. But this itself might be an oversimplification. In a tight race, small numbers belonging to a fourth, unclassifiable category may tilt the balance in favour of one formation or another and, correspondingly, compound the instability.

AGAINST a backdrop of so much volatility and uncertainty, it is reassuring that the performance of the institutions of democracy has been creditable and reliable. In particular, the roles of a constitutionally circumscribed, but not quite ceremonial President and Election Commission have come in for much public appreciation.

A multi-member Election Commission is clearly better for fair, free and tension-free elections than a single-member body that is in the habit of grandstanding. The present three-member Election Commission has provided every indication that it is on top of the situation - and that it is possible to be firm, objective and reform-minded without going over the top.

During the last phase of the crisis, the focus shifted to the role of the President, the exemplary K.R. Narayanan whose objectivity, fairness and well-informed responses have served the system well and made him a very popular figure. The perhaps overlong communique from the Rashtrapati Bhavan, responding to the perceived need for transparency but appearing to cover all bases, might have given the impression that various options were open to the President. They were not.

The only constitutionally proper - and beneficial - role the President can play in the Indian system of parliamentary democracy is to play by the book. The book assigns him a very high formal role, but wisely circumscribes his substantive powers to the point of not giving him any at all. It is not open to the President to overrule "advice" relating to any subject coming from a Council of Ministers that has not lost its legitimacy in terms of publicly known Lok Sabha arithmetic. It is not the constitutional business of the head of state to plump for some mythical 'stability' against the odds. Such action has, of course, been suggested by those who are constantly calling for an extra-constitutional presidential push to the idea of 'national government' or getting Members of Parliament to bypass the party system and elect a Prime Minister on the floor of Parliament. In short, the high office of the President in the Indian system cannot be converted into any kind of escape mechanism, let alone a deus ex machina.

THIS noted, we look forward, with a number of secular and progressive concerns but not without optimism, to the coming electoral season. We share the stoicism of the authors of our opening article that "elections 1998 will be yet another way station in the evolution of the Indian polity towards a more genuinely democratic and federal structure."

We would like to share with our readers an insight passed on by a professional pollster who has worked with Frontline in the past. The voter turn-out at the national level and in various battleground States, he tells us, will make a considerable difference to the outcome of this general election. And the lower the turn-out at the national level, it seems, the better it will be for the BJP. With the Congress(I) apparently not seriously in the race to form the next elected government in New Delhi, we hope that the people of India, by turning out enthusiastically to cast their votes, will ensure a democratic and secular outcome.