Miracle or enigma?

Published : Sep 11, 2009 00:00 IST

NOT many know that Indias Election Commission (E.C.) has published narrative reports apart from the statistical ones on every election held from 1952 to 1984. The practice of publishing narrative reports was discontinued after the 1984 elections, for inexplicable reasons. The E.C. replaced the narrative reports with annual reports to Parliament but discontinued this practice too after 1986-87, probably because it was viewed as signalling a dilution of its autonomy.

The tradition of bringing out narrative reports was revived again to some extent with the publication of the volume Elections in India: Major Events and New Initiatives, 1996-2000 during M.S. Gills tenure as Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). But the earlier reports stood out for their candidness on issues that todays E.C. would deem to be strictly beyond its concerns. The narrative reports analysed and commented on the background and outcome of every general election; explained how the commission ensured fair and peaceful elections; and recounted the problems it encountered during elections. Gill admitted in the 2000 report that the suspension of narrative reports was unwise.

Students of Indian elections thus face a serious problem finding the requisite material, especially on the challenges faced by the E.C. Memoirs of the CECs, if written with the objective of sharing the truth with readers, can fill this void to some extent. The book The Miracle of Democracy: Indias Amazing Journey by the former CEC T.S. Krishnamurthy is one such effort. The tradition of former CECs writing memoirs was set by T.N. Seshan (A Heart Full of Burden) and followed by J.M. Lyngdoh (Chronicle of an Impossible Election). But these books are far from adequate to get a full understanding of the inner workings of the E.C.

Considering the primacy of the E.C. in the supervision and conduct of elections, there are many questions and issues that the institution is in a better position than others to explain. From this perspective, Krishnamurthys book is a mixed bag. He offers a superficial but informed analysis of issues concerning the E.C. and throws limited light on his tenure at Nirvachan Sadan between 2000 and 2005. He joined the E.C. on January 30, 2000, and was the CEC from February 2004 to May 2005. Krishnamurthy supervised the 14th general elections to the Lok Sabha in 2004 and had the opportunity to observe the strengths and weaknesses of Indian democracy at close quarters.

Readers of memoirs look for the personal impressions of the author. Krishnamurthy does not disappoint his readers. Thus, he says that his predecessor, Gill, was known for his tactful handling of men and matters. He has great admiration for Gill and the polite demeanour with which Gill met the politicians who visited, both formally and informally. From Lyngdoh, Krishnamurthy learnt the art of keeping politicians at a distance. In his opinion, both these styles have to be blended astutely, depending upon the situation. Krishnamurthy feels that perhaps he did succeed to some extent in this regard.

Krishnamurthys successor N. Gopalaswami created a huge controversy with his recommendation that Election Commissioner Navin Chawla be removed from the commission. Krishnamurthy does not deal with this controversy but indicates his preference for having the two Election Commissioners on an equal footing with the CEC. He feels that the procedure for the removal of all three members of the E.C. should be the same because he apprehends that a high-handed CEC can use the discriminatory power to his advantage by recommending the removal of colleagues who do not agree with him. He deplores the fact that despite several communications from the E.C. to bring parity in the procedure, the response of the government is still not clear.

Krishnamurthy says he disagrees with the Supreme Courts 2006 judgment holding the dissolution of the Bihar Legislative Assembly in 2005 as unconstitutional. By saying so, he also implies that he did not agree with the E.C.s decision to notify the elections, after he retired from it in 2005. The February 2005 Assembly elections in Bihar resulted in a hung Assembly. It was dissolved on May 23, 2005, following the failure of political parties to stake their claim before the Governor to form the government.

When the Supreme Court took up the matter of the challenge to the dissolution of the Assembly and the imposition of Presidents Rule, the E.C. had already issued a notification in regard to the first two phases before the conclusion of arguments. When the Supreme Court issued the interim order on October 7, 2005, even the last dates for filing nominations and conducting their scrutiny were over. In the interim order, the Supreme Court allowed the elections to proceed because the E.C. felt it was under a constitutional mandate to complete fresh elections within six months of the dissolution.

In 2002, however, the E.C. took the stand that it could not hold the Assembly elections in Gujarat within six months of the dissolution of the Assembly because of the poor law and order situation in the State following the post-Godhra violence a stand which the Supreme Court upheld subsequently.

In his book, Krishnamurthy is intrigued that the Supreme Court did not revive a constitutionally elected House in spite of proclaiming that its dissolution and the imposition of Presidents Rule were unconstitutional. He is equally intrigued about the reasons for another round of elections being allowed in Bihar when the elected members were still awaiting the formal constitution of the House. He is clear that a new notification for elections should not have been issued unless the House had been dissolved constitutionally. If Krishnamurthy is convinced that his successor B.B. Tandon and his former colleagues in the E.C. were wrong in issuing the notification for the Bihar Assembly elections when the Supreme Court was still hearing petitions challenging the dissolution of the Assembly, why has he not said so explicitly in his book?

That apart, Krishnamurthys memoirs raise the larger question of whether the success of democracy and economic backwardness are incompatible with each other. Bihar, according to him, is a prime example of how democratic needs cannot always be fulfilled in the midst of economic backwardness, illiteracy and poor infrastructure. The feudal and backward conditions prevailing in Bihar and neighbouring UP [Uttar Pradesh] are a serious deterrent to the success of democracy in India, he says.

Elsewhere in the book, he makes a similar observation about the feudal conditions in Haryana, where political violence poses a huge challenge to holding peaceful elections. Unfortunately, such sweeping statements remain unexplained, leaving the reader with lingering doubts about the authors intention in making them. Indeed, the opposite view, that Indian democracy has succeeded despite poverty and backwardness, is more persuasive than Krishnamurthys seemingly pessimistic outlook.

For him, Indian democracy itself appeared to be a miracle waiting to be unravelled by his insider account of the E.C.s challenges and the reforms required to overcome them. For outsiders, however, Indian democracy is more of an enigma than a miracle. The very fact that the country has been able to successfully conduct its periodical elections does not fascinate them, but interpreting voter behaviour in various States and searching for a pan-Indian phenomenon amidst bewildering State-specific data leave outsiders bemused.

The second book under review, Electoral Politics in Indian States edited by Sandeep Shastri, K.C. Suri and Yogendra Yadav, rightly addresses themes that only a team of scholars with complete objectivity can handle with efficiency. Beginning with the suspense associated with the outcome of the 14th general elections, the book promises a comprehensive analysis of the dynamics of electoral politics in India post-2004.

A preliminary and superficial interpretation of the outcome of the 2009 general elections suggested that the Congress stood to benefit because voters were more concerned with stability at the Centre than politics in the States. In their book, Shastri et al. show, on the basis of data thrown up by the 2004 elections, that the theatre of politics has shifted to the States. Does the book help to reconcile these seemingly contradictory messages from the two general elections held in the last five years? Yogendra Yadav says in the first chapter, titled Elusive Mandate of 2004: An Overview, that the national verdict cannot be explained with reference to short-term factors relating to the campaign effect or to more visible factors such as leadership or the performance of the government. He adds that the principal weight of explaining this verdict must be borne by the very long-term structuring of political choices and by contingent factors such as peoples assessment of their respective State governments and new electoral coalitions.

What Yogendra Yadav says could be true of the 2004 elections, but as a generalisation, it does not help in understanding the outcome of the 2009 elections. The campaign effect is certainly seen as a major factor that could explain the debacle of the National Democratic Alliance in 2009. Analysts, both within and outside the NDA, appear to share the view that Varun Gandhis hate campaign against minorities and the Bharatiya Janata Partys indefensible decision to field him as a candidate alienated many neutral voters from the BJP besides helping to consolidate Muslim vote against it. L.K. Advanis description of Manmohan Singh as Indias weakest Prime Minister and the projection of Narendra Modi as the BJPs prime ministerial candidate after Advani are also cited as factors that facilitated the Congress remarkable recovery.

Similarly, Yogendra Yadav rejects the pluralism argument that the BJPs communal politics, especially the Gujarat massacre, alienated a significant proportion of liberal Hindu voters from the NDA. Citing Suhas Palshikar, one of the books other contributors, Yogendra Yadav warns against the complacency of secular politics on this count. Conceding that there is a significant section of Hindus that continues to support tolerance on religious matters, he cautions that there is little evidence to suggest that these strains might have led to a vote against the BJP.

Yogendra Yadav also rejects the view that the 2004 verdict was a mandate against economic reform policies. According to him, very few ordinary voters have much of an idea of economic reform policies and they cannot be expected to have clear opinions about something they hardly comprehend. On the contrary, he finds substance in the view that the NDA regime was perceived to be pro-rich and that the overriding anxiety among voters was related to conditions of employment, which were seen to be declining. He concludes with this subtle observation: A mandate is often earned, and learnt, retrospectively.

Yogendra Yadavs introductory essay is followed by in-depth essays by different scholars on 19 States all trying to support the view that the 2004 mandate was an aggregation of State-level verdicts. In their concluding essay, Yogendra Yadav and Palshikar examine the characteristics of the third electoral system, which was triggered by the sudden decline of the Congress in 1989. According to them, the format of competitive politics inaugurated by the third electoral system could persist for a fairly long period.

On the basis of their study, they offer the following hypotheses: One, while State politics does not eclipse the issues in national elections, the performance of State governments is one of the most salient factors influencing voters in national elections. Second, more often than not, the Indian voter uses the Lok Sabha elections to pass a verdict on the State government. Third, the performance of the national government and other national issues do matter to the voter, though these issues are filtered through the prism of State politics. It remains to be seen whether the authors stick to these hypotheses in the light of the 2009 results.

Yogendra Yadav and Palshikar, however, deserve to be complimented for foreseeing the phenomenon of continuity as opposed to rampant anti-incumbency, which was the trend until a few years ago. However, they caution that this does not necessarily indicate the emergence of an era of better governance; there are various factors to explain why voters prefer continuity to change in each State. The authors suggest that the narrowing of political choice could be a common factor among voters.

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