Thursday, May 5, 2011

Politicians as our 'representatives'


Among the charges levelled against social activist Anna Hazare and his supporters is that they arm-twisted a democratically-elected Government into including them in a Government panel to draft the Lok Pal Bill. This, the dissenters fume, cannot be tolerated, because no ‘civil society’ member has the right to subvert the Constitution by seeking to become a framer of public policy. That prerogative, the critics remind us, rests solely with representatives elected by the people through a transparent democratic process. It is difficult to fathom how the subversion happens if enlightened members of society want to influence policies in the larger interest of the people. But let us accept the charge for the moment to take the issue forward.

We would then have to assume that our representatives, on whom we place such trust, truly represent us. Can even the most ardent admirer certify with conviction that the representatives, barring exceptions, have served us well, and that they have demonstrated promise of doing so in the coming times? One can already imagine the critics’ retort: If the people are unhappy with their representative, they can vote him or her out. Another retort: The voters are responsible for the wrong kind of people coming in. The message is clear in both the lines of persuasion, and it is that the only window available for course correction is elections. This is anachronistic to a healthy democratic system in which the people’s participation does not end but begins with an election. In any case, the voters are not in a position to decide the timing of voting out a useless representative; even that is determined by Government agencies.

Moreover, this argument would have been valid if elections were fought and won on issues of good governance. But that rarely happens — the BJP Government in Gujarat and the NDA Government in Bihar are among the exceptions — and the Governments that assume power do not do so because they promise the people greater accountability and cleanliness in public life. Had that been the case, people behind bars for offences as serious as murder, rape and extortion would not be contesting — directly or through proxies — and winning elections.

To understand why we should not expect many of the elected representatives to reflect the aspirations and grievances of the people at large, we must acknowledge a harsh reality which is at the core of several of our problems. It is that these leaders often win with the help of a small section of society, many times located in a few pockets of the constituency. Thus, the people’s support for them is neither broad-based nor spread across the constituency. The first-past-the-post system ensures their victory even with minority votes, ie they can bag just a quarter of the total votes polled and yet be a victor. Why would such a representative bother even with issues like good governance, when all he has to do is to appease the small section of the people which has got him elected? In the end, that is the only mandate he has to honour, not petty matters like the Lok Pal Bill.

Let us look at some figures to better understand the rationale. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, just 40 per cent of winners were elected by polling more than 50 per cent of the total votes cast. The rest polled a minority number. The situation is even more alarming when one glances at the votes gained by winners as a proportion of the total electors. As former Union Minister and author Arun Shourie points out in his excellent book, The Parliamentary System, “99 per cent of the members got into the Lok Sabha by getting less than half the electors to vote for them.”

He provides another startling figure that really explains the disdain of many of our politicians to meaningful reforms like the Lok Pal Bill or changes in the electoral laws. In elections to the Uttar Pradesh State Assembly seats between 2001 and 2005, for instance, 62 per cent of candidates became the ‘people’s representatives’ by attracting less than 20 per cent of the votes.

Staying with Uttar Pradesh, should it surprise anyone that the highest votes polled by a winner as percentage of electors in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls was a mere 18 per cent — in Ballia — and that the lowest was an abysmal 11 per cent in the reserved seat of Basti? If these margins are all that are needed to win elections, why would a representative waste his energy on anything else other than to ‘manage’ his niche constituents for retaining the seat!

Recently, Madhav Godbole, former Union Home Secretary and now author of some remarkable books on contemporary subjects, comments in his latest offering, India’s Parliamentary Democracy on Trial that it would be best to discard the first-past-the-post system which is responsible for victors to emerge in elections despite polling a minority number of votes. He informs, “In the election to Uttar Pradesh Assembly held in 2007, 96.53 per cent of the winners polled less than 50 per cent of the votes cast.”

The Uttar Pradesh example should partly explain the recent conduct of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party representatives on the Public Accounts Committee. They ganged up with the Congress and the DMK to stall the acceptance of the panel’s report that severely indicted the Prime Minister and other arms of the Government for the 2G spectrum licencing fraud. Winning on largely caste and community lines, the leaders of the two Uttar Pradesh parties do not have to even present a fa├žade of support for good and accountable governance.

They have to only ensure two things to remain relevant: One, get their caste and community calculations right, and two, humour the UPA Government to fob off the various cases against them pursued by central probe agencies. In their scheme of things, helping either to punish the guilty in the 2G scam or to get progressive legislations like a strong Lok Pal Bill are way down the priority order.

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