Failure of electoral democracy breeds politics of opportunism

And the drama in Karnataka is proof

Monobina Gupta

The Wire (India), New Delhi, May 20, 2018

Actions on both sides of the electoral divide in the still continuing Karnataka saga underline the frailties that are diminishing the idea of electoral democracy.

The succession of sordid spectacles that recently unfolded following the Karnataka Assembly poll’s fractured mandate has yet again raised disquieting questions about the transaction and efficiency of our current form of electoral democracy.

The twists and turns in government formation – though not witnessed for the first time in the country’s electoral history – have heightened the sense of crisis building around the practice of electoral democracy.

Trustworthy Index?

In India, like elsewhere in the world, elections are today synonymous with democracy. But with elections becoming more an exercise in reproducing state power than addressing concerns of citizens, it may be time to ask: Are elections no longer a trustworthy index for judging the robustness and legitimacy of our democracy?

Given the audacious manipulativeness every political party is prone to – going so far as to even subvert the very principles of the democracy they swear by from every public platform at their disposal – how truly representative are elections of the popular will?

Given the nature of contemporary political culture, the mere mention of political ethics is likely to provoke sniggers among many who believe all tactics are fair in winning elections. Such unethical cynicism is wrapped up in realpolitik.

No wonder that fielding candidates with serious criminal charges against them has become an “acceptable” practice, just as it has become acceptable to push through partisan appointees in high constitutional posts.

Promoting horse-trading

For instance, we have just witnessed how Karnataka Governor Vajubhai Vala, a BJP man, tried to rescue his Party, knowing full well that giving B S Yeddyurappa 15 days to put together the requisite numbers meant promoting horse-trading.

It is for good reason that the public perception of politicians over the last decade or so has rapidly grown more and more cynical.

Alarmingly, it is not just the political class which is eyed with suspicion and even contempt, the institutions they represent too are fast losing credibility. Interestingly, though, the people’s lack of faith in the political class and political institutions has not lessened their interest in politics itself. In other words, even as the hiatus between voters and legislators has widened, politics has not been divested of the pull it continues to hold over the people.

BJP Vs Congress-JDS

Let’s consider in this context some nuggets from the outcomes of the Karnataka poll and subsequent attempts at government formation. Even while emerging as the single largest party, the BJP fell short of the magic number needed to form a government.

On the other side, the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) – which had fought the polls separately, and even each other in several constituencies – notched up the numbers to form a coalition government.

Rather than accepting the challenge of sitting in opposition as it has done in the past five years, the BJP whipped out every possible device in its tactical armoury to capture power.

That the Supreme Court’s intervention foiled the Party’s wink-nudge attempts is a separate matter altogether. Few would accuse the BJP of not trying hard enough to play the system.

The Congress and its new-found ally, on their part, ferried their respective legislators to a resort outside the state – a pre-emptive move to prevent them from yielding to temptations the BJP may have dangled before them.

The Parties’ strenuous as well as nervous attempts to keep their flock from straying is part of the same narrative as the BJP trying to throw that flock in disarray.

Manipulating the System

Both narratives point to how easily electoral systems have come to be manipulated, and the lack – if not absence – of enduring principles of politics and ethics that could act deterrents against legislators switching sides.

As the politics of opportunism completely takes over, Parties need to devise measures of stealth and cunning in order to force a sense of political loyalty that in an ethical environment would need no prompting.

Hence, it has become common practice in any situation of electoral volatility to transport vulnerable legislators to a safe distance from the site of temptation.

One may reasonably wonder: how can people hold their elected representatives in esteem when party leaders themselves cannot depend on them to stay true to the Party and its politics, especially at a time of crisis?

Actions on both sides of the electoral divide in the still continuing Karnataka saga underline the frailties that are diminishing the idea of electoral democracy.

They bring to the fore the limitations of elections in strengthening democracy in public life. It goes without saying that the intention here is not to argue a case for dispensing with elections, but to underline that electoral democracy is only one instrument – one which is becoming increasingly blunt – for thinking about democratic politics.

Popular trust waning

In his book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, David Van Reybrouck shows how the lack of popular trust in institutions and electoral democracy has deepened across the world. Reybrouck believes that the continued attrition of people’s faith in politics, even as their interest in politics grows, has tended to create an “explosive” situation.

“What does it mean for the stability of a country if more and more people warily keep track of the activities of an authority that they increasingly distrust? How much derision can a system endure, especially now that everyone can share their deeply felt opinions online?” he asks.

Paradoxically, fifty years ago, Reybrouck says, the world we lived in was marked by greater political apathy and yet a greater trust in politics.

According to the World Values Survey, there has been an increasing tendency over the past decade to root for strong leaders. A leader who would be indifferent to Parliament and elections, which has led Reybrouck to comment: “It would appear that people like the idea of democracy but not the reality of it, or at any rate not the current reality.”

Monobina Gupta is Managing Editor at The Wire. She has worked in several news organisations including the Telegraph and the Times of India. She is also the author of ‘Left Politics in Bengal and Didi: A Political Biography.’ The above article appeared in The Wire, (thewire.in) Web Edition on May 20, 2018. It has been reproduced here with the permission of Siddharth Varadarajan, also a Founding Editor. Established in India on May 10, 2015, as an editorially and financially independent entity, The Wire is committed to promoting the values of democracy and journalism.

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Photo Caption:

B S Yeddyurappa in the Karnataka assembly on Saturday

(Photo Credit: PTI as published in The Wire, India in another article)

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