Elections are not enough

When the Vajpayee government was voted out of power, the vast majority of newspapers favoured a fresh poll. They felt horse-trading in the political marketplace was both immoral and futile, and that the voting public should be approached for a fresh mandate.

I see some merit in this line of argument, but feel it is both myopic and incomplete. We had a general election in 1996 and another in 1998, and still the problem of political instability and misgovernance continues. We have absolutely no guarantee that another election, or even a string of fresh elections, will produce stability or good governance. Indeed, a diverse country like ours can be expected to produce a diversity of parties that make unstable coalitions the rule rather than the exception.

We seem to have forgotten what elections are supposed to achieve. They are not devices to create stable governments. They are supposed to be devices for ensuring that rulers reflect the will of the people, and are accountable to the people. Elections are a means to enforce accountability, not an end in themselves.

Alas, today elections do riot produce enough accountability. All layfolk will tell you that criminals should be in jail rather than politics. Yet we have steadily institutionalised a system where, according to one of the Election Commissioners, we have 40 criminals in Parliament and 700 in state legislatures. Indeed, criminals join politics to avoid prosecution, since in many states legislators get virtual immunity from prosecution.

Why do voters, who dislike criminals, nevertheless elect bandits? Because they feel no political party is serious about putting crooks in jail, that every party bristles with criminals. So elections are becoming a contest between rival gangs of bandits. In theory, we have the rule of law, but in practice what works is money, muscle and influence. These inputs are well supplied by criminals, poorly supplied by honest folk. When the organs of the state no longer deliver justice or much else, people turn to the moneyed and muscled. God no longer delivers, so we turn to the Godfather.

Having more elections in this milieu is not going to improve accountability or governance. The BJP government was under pressure from day one because Jayalalitha wanted to have corruption cases against her weakened or dropped. The BJP, to its discredit, accommodated her in various ways, and abolished the special courts trying her. Yet she was not satisfied, and this finally led to the collapse of the coalition This is not democracy but kleptocracy at work.

Elections are necessary for democracy but not sufficient. We need accountability not only once in five years at election time but in all the months in between. This has to be achieved by the rule of law, not be even more elections. Those who break the law must suffer swift penalties. If instead they become king-makers and chief ministers, then accountability, the true purpose of democracy, tends to disappear. Election’ cease to represent the will of the people and instead become a sort of beauty con test for the mafia. Now, competition between bandits is unquestionably better than rule by a single bandit, so Indian democracy is not a total sham. Yet it falls well short of what a democracy is supposed to deliver.

We urgently need judicial and administrative reform to produce a system that speedily puts crooks in jail. Unfortunately, bandit-legislators are unlikely to give any priority to reforms that will put them in jail. Indrajit Gupta recently revealed that when he was home minister, he wrote to all chief ministers on implementing the Police Commission’s report. Few CMs were interested; most did not even bother to reply.

What happens when a democracy gets sabotaged in this manner? Typically, there is internal revolt somewhere. In India, we are seeing a revolt of some institutions like the judiciary, which are no longer prepared to acknowledge the moral authority of elected politicians. This explains why the Supreme Court has held that the Central Bureau of Investigation should report to an independent Chief Vigilance Commissioner rather than the Prime Minister or Home Minister.

Alas, the legislation to give teeth to this judgment has lapsed with the fall of the government. Yet this is the direction in which we must move. Others have already done so. In Japan, for instance, criminal investigation is overseen by an independent authority, not the home minister.

Two decades ago, B.K. Nehru called for urgent action to forestall the steady sabotage of the rule of law by political interference. Law and order have traditionally been the preserve of the home ministry, but B.K. Nehru questioned this. Maintaining public order is clearly a political matter, and so police dealing with public order must be under the home minister. But why should criminal investigation be under the Home Ministry, or under any political control at all? It should be an independent operation, which politicians are helpless to affect. The police should be divided into two streams, one to deal with public order and another to deal with crimes.

How will this change politics? A great deal. The attempts of a Laloo Yadav or Jayalalitha to subvert prosecution will no longer threaten the life of governments. The political process will gradually be purged of criminal elements. A better class of individuals will find it worthwhile to enter politics. Governance and accountability will at last improve.

This still does not imply stable governments. But to me the main issue in a democracy is accountability, not stability. Stability without accountability represents a kernel of autocracy, even if covered by the husk of elections.

What do you think?