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As promised in our last issue, we are sharing with our readers here some interesting posts from Mr. Vikram Lal’s blog. These are in the form of a diaIogue on the nature of our democracy.


I Don’t Like Our Democracy

Posted by Vikram Lal on 12/08/2011

As Churchill’s famous saying goes: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” It may not be the worst when compared to other forms, but it is pretty bad. Especially our democracy.

The whole purpose of democracy and representative government is that since every citizen cannot be governing the nation, we have to decide who will govern on our behalf. Totalitarian systems don’t ask their citizens who should run government, but in a democracy each adult is asked to vote for a candidate so that a person of our choice is sent to parliament and various other assemblies on our behalf.

But I don’t like our democracy because it doesn’t work like a democracy and because it has caused very serious problems in our society, such as of corruption, money power and criminality, and a heightened awareness of differences and a diminishing one of commonalities. The most vexing and damaging issue of all is that of financing of elections. In India, it seems that it is black money that finances almost all of every election. Since the amounts have escalated over the past three decades, the process of collecting money required for elections causes all kinds of aberrations in the behaviour of politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats and just about everyone else. Election funding is the patented excuse politicians use for justifying their corrupt practices, even though the amounts they apparently collect these days are several times those needed for elections. Most of the money presumably goes into their own pockets.

Other democracies, in particular the US, Germany and some other European nations, have evolved a system of election funding by the state. However, none of them are quite satisfactory. India will need to devise its own system because it seems that the existing ones would not serve us well. Part of that is because of culture, but more than that is the lack of law enforcement in India. Election funding is the reason for the shocking increase in criminals fighting and winning elections to our parliament and state assemblies. They are the ones who engage in smuggling and other lucrative but illegal activities, and who are able to coerce local businesses to contribute to their kitty. They browbeat and threaten opposing candidates as well as election officials. Earlier such criminal elements used to work for genuine politicians, but they soon realised that they could get elected themselves instead. For them election is an insurance against criminal proceedings.

Problem number 1: Elections require too much money, and that money has to be raised privately, often by taking serious obligations towards donors. It encourages criminals to seek election. The election process should require very little money, and even that money, or a large part of it, should become available to the (genuine) politician through the state so that elected representatives are in no way beholden to any donor.

I don’t like our democracy because the person elected from any constituency is elected, on average, by a small minority of eligible voters, and not by a majority. In India a parliamentary constituency consists of a large number of voters. Each eligible voter can only vote for one person out of a typical 7 or 8 candidates. Let us assume that in a typical case the winner gets 33% of the votes cast, and that about 60% of the eligible voters actually cast their votes. If we multiply both these figures, it gives us about 20%. Of the entire constituency just 20% of the voters voted positively for this person, who will now go and speak for all of us. This is my problem number 2: Persons elected to parliament represent a fraction well below half of the constituency they represent, very often even below a quarter.

I don’t like my democracy because the elected person is not representative of the views, needs, aspirations of his constituency. In order that a constituency is fairly represented there should be a set of representatives who reflect the diversity of opinion, culture, sex, age, education and economic status of the voters. This is not possible for an individual — however capable — to accomplish, even if he were to try very hard. In order to achieve this objective there would have to be many more than one representative for a constituency. In other words, a microcosm of the constituency should be sitting in parliament or assembly. Since that would mean an extremely large parliament, it does not sound practical at all. However, that is problem number 3: Whoever may be elected, he is perforce not representative of a large majority of his constituency.

If we take problems 2 and 3 we see that any representative has two serious shortcomings: he is elected by a fairly small minority of eligible voters, and he represents in terms of views, aspirations, needs only a small fraction of his constituency.

I don’t like my democracy because, despite suitable amendments to the constitution a long time ago, democracy of a kind exists today only at the state and national levels. An average state in India (if one leaves out the union territories and the north-eastern states) has some 60 million people, and is easily comparable to a large European country such as the UK, France or Italy. UP on its own would be the 5th largest country in the world – larger than Brazil, Russia or Japan; Maharashtra the 11th (as large as Mexico), and Bihar the 13th – bigger than Philippines, Germany or Egypt. Despite their huge populations and physical spread, our states rule their citizens from the state capital. There is virtually no democracy at any lower level. This is not to say that there are no other governments, but that they have no effective authority, and are toothless formalities. Each district is supposed to have a zilla parishad, and many have it. However, power is effectively in the hands of the DC and his team of bureaucrats who report directly to the state government.

In our context even a district is large. The average population per district is around 2 million. There are meant to be a further two layers of democratic governments below the zilla parishad, but they fare even worse than the district level governments. This is in rural India. Urban governance is just as undemocratic. A large percentage of our towns and cities don’t have a representative government. They are often run by an IAS person sent by the state. Citizens and localities have little if any say in how their area should be shaped and where money should be spent. Everything is decided at some faraway place in an opaque manner by people who have little if any local knowledge and even less interest. In addition, bureaucrats are transferred frequently, leading to disruption in any ongoing work.

Problem number 4: The most important layers of government at the grass roots are missing in India. Democracy should begin at the grass-roots and only from there go further until it reaches the national level. All decisions that can be taken locally must be taken locally.

I don’t like our democracy because my representative is often sitting in the opposition and is doing nothing for the constituency. We have all got used to the concept of an opposition, but it may not be a good thing at all. When people are elected to parliament, they should all have a role in government such that everyone works together to solve problems facing the country and to be prepared for the future. To some extent this is done through the involvement of all members of parliament in discussing and finally approving legislation. However, the executive consists of the majority party or coalition, and others, who usually form a large minority of between 30 and 49%, are not involved in it.

There is considerable talent that is allowed to go waste simply because we convert everything into ‘for’ and ‘against’. The fact is that every constituency has sent its representative to parliament so that he may work in the interest of the nation and in the specific interest of the constituency. As a voter I would not like the representative from my constituency to be sitting in the opposition, doing practically nothing for his people.

An attitude that has become the hallmark of any opposition in our parliament and assemblies is that too much stress is laid on the term ‘opposition’. The result is that just about everything that the government of the day proposes, the opposition opposes, even when it would have proposed something similar had it been in government. The outcome is that instead of working constructively with government, the opposition is always busy finding reasons to oppose whatever it might be that the government has proposed at the moment. That is problem number 5: Representatives of all parties and elected members from all regions are not involved in government but should be.

There are several layers of elected government. Currently there is no mechanism by which all levels could be elected simultaneously. The consequence is that some kind of election is taking place every few months, which in turn makes the government act in election mode almost all the time. This means that essential but possibly unpopular decisions are postponed ‘until after the coming elections’. It also means that there is a stream of populist decisions and actions which are largely detrimental to the interests of the people in general. Were all levels of government to be elected together every 4 or 5 years at predictable intervals, it would enable governments to act rationally most of the time. Problem number 6: Elections for all levels of government should be held simultaneously and at fixed intervals.

There is no shortage of talented, intelligent, committed, capable people in India. And yet we end up with persons like Chandrashekhar, Deve Gowda, Manmohan Singh, V P Singh as prime ministers. The same applies to chief ministers of states, and to ministers at the centre and states. And yet we have amongst the world’s best managers and entrepreneurs, lawyers, scientists and doctors. The impact that a political leader has on the people of our country is much greater than that of any other profession. This is where the talent should be, and where it is not going. That is my problem number 7: People at the helm of affairs at the centre and at the states are most often of a mediocre calibre or worse. There is a serious shortage of competence in leadership, and in a commitment to the interests of the nation in our politics.

We elect our representatives to parliament or assembly so that he may exercise his mind on all matters that come before the house and help the house come to the best possible decision, keeping the interests of our constituency in mind. This is the theory. However, this doesn’t happen. And because it doesn’t happen, our democracy is there only in theory, not in practice. The first reason why it doesn’t happen is my problem number 8: that there is no consequence for a member of the legislature for non-performance, be it because of laziness, callousness, ignorance, or because he is too involved in matters other than those before the house and government. The ability to vote him out after 5 years is not a good enough tool. Five years is a very long time to be poorly represented. There should be some method of appraising each person in parliament/assembly so that his constituency learns of his actions and inactions, and is able to replace him mid-term.

The second is that there is a thing called a ‘whip’. What the whip does is that it prevents a member of that specific party that issues a whip from voting the way he feels he should on any particular issue. He is forced to vote as decreed by the party leader even if it is against the interests of his constituency or even if he feels differently. If a whip is issued in rare circumstances that are critical to the ruling party or coalition, one could still understand it, but whips on normal issues have to be avoided. Parties use it freely instead of having an internal discussion to explain and persuade its own members to accept the stand of the leadership, or accept suggestions for change. My problem number 9: whips prevent meaningful discussions and efforts to argue and to persuade others. They are a weapon of autocracy.

I don’t like my democracy because it permits persons to stand for election from two or more constituencies; and it permits people to stand from a constituency with which they have had absolutely no connection previously. A person elected from a constituency represents the people of that area and their interests. These are not just items on a list. The person must feel for the constituency, must identify with it, must be acutely aware of its problems and its opportunities, of its needs, of its history and geography. He must speak its language, know its customs.

The only way to try to ensure this is with a residency requirement. There may be other solutions that are as good or better. But some such thing is necessary to make a person truly represent a constituency. Problem number 10: Candidates are allowed to stand from anywhere in the country, regardless of being connected to the place or not. A person wanting to represent a constituency must in a very real sense belong to it.

A corollary of this need is that a person cannot possibly represent 2 constituencies. Apart from that, it is an aberration in our election law that permits a person to stand from two places – it completely defies logic! Problem number 11: A person can stand from two or more places in the same election. The question of being allowed to stand from more than one place should simply not arise.

I don’t like my democracy because it often happens that our leaders at centre and state are so old that their energy and their ambitions are at low levels, and their ability to relate to the large majority of people, who are a generation or two younger, no longer exists. They become caricatures of themselves when they were much younger. The consequences for the nation and for the state are very high, because it is these leaders who have to take the vital decisions and to lead the government they belong to. If they are physically and/or mentally handicapped by age, it becomes a serious deficiency for the nation or state. The only solution is an age limit for candidates for election. Problem number 12: Very old people in government are a big obstacle for good governance and are detrimental to the interests of the people.

Counterpoint Kamal Jaswal on 30/08/2011 said:

Dear Vikram, Your blog is well-crafted and very thought provoking. While I agree with your analysis, I have a somewhat different perception as regards some of your suppositions and conclusions. Here are my observations.

• The reason why political parties are fielding more and more known criminals in the elections is not that they have the money needed to fight an election. Their USP is the muscle power at their command and the hold that they come to acquire over their territories. This hold is often gained by providing an informal channel for adjudication of interpersonal and business disputes and extending protection (for a consideration) to small enterprises from the depredations of various enforcement agencies. In effect, the local strongmen build their electoral capital by supplying a critical governance deficit. State funding of elections per se will not lead to decriminalization of electoral politics.

• It is true that in most constituencies the winning candidate secures less than 50 per cent of the votes cast. However, it may not be correct to suggest that his representative capacity is further impaired by a low voter turn-out, unless it can be ascribed to the exclusion or intimidation of the voters of other candidates. Those who choose not to exercise their democratic right to vote need not be factored into electoral calculations.

• The ‘first-past- the-post’ system that we have borrowed from the British has major drawbacks, foremost of which is that the political parties backing the losing candidates get no return on their investment in that constituency. This raises the electoral stakes so much that it becomes a noholds- barred contest. This is another reason why political parties are forced to splurge on the elections, cultivate the local strongmen and indulge in a divisive identity politics. We will need radical electoral reforms to reverse these trends.

• While an all-party national government can be envisaged in times of a national emergency, in normal circumstances, the opposition should have enough to do in holding the government to account, challenging the postulates of its policies and keeping a hawk eye on their implementation. However, I agree that the governments should also cast around for outstanding talent outside the party fold, as is the practice in the USA and was the case with Jawahar Lal Nehru’s first cabinet.

• Simultaneous elections to all elected assemblies will save a lot of expense and allow the governments to focus on the business of governance, which has to be relegated to the background as soon as an election approaches. It will be possible only if all the assemblies have a fixed five year term and the provision for premature dissolution of an assembly is done away with. When a government loses the confidence of the House, the opposition must come forward to form its own government. The only disadvantage of simultaneous elections is that the electorate will not have the space to segregate issues of national importance from local concerns.

• There is no doubt that the instrument of whip is grossly abused in our democracy. This reflects on the quality of the debate in our assemblies and the laws passed by them. All that is expected of our lawmakers is an unquestioning acceptance of the whip issued by the party. It is not for them to exercise their little grey cells. This system must be scrapped. A provision for the recall of non-performing lawmakers will also encourage them to show greater application and stay tuned to the concerns and aspirations of their constituents.

• There can be no dispute that we sorely need more and more young people with passion for public service in our assemblies. But in our system, a young person has practically no chance of getting noticed by the party leadership in the absence of ties of kinship with one or the other established political dynasties. Most of these young dynasts are mainly concerned with looking good and add little value to the deliberations of the houses that they adorn.

• We have not made sincere efforts to give effect to the letter and spirit of the provisions of the Constitution in regard to local self government. The devolution of functions, functionaries and funds that should have taken place in the wake of the 73rd and 74th Amendments is still a distant dream. The state governments and the bureaucracy are reluctant to let go of their powers over local bodies. There has been no investment in building the capacities of local institutions of governance, which can make the greatest impact at the grassroots level. This lack of capacity is then held out as the reason for deferring the devolution envisaged in the Constitution. The state governments do not have to depute IAS officers to take charge of urban local bodies to perpetuate their sway over them, although a small number of IAS officers could be found in the larger municipal corporations. The real problem is that elected councils, when they are in place, do not have the powers, the resources, or the capacity to discharge their constitutional functions. The need of the hour is to rectify the extant asymmetry of powers between the second and the third tiers of government.