gfiles magazine

April 19, 2011

For sale: Indian democracy

In Tamil Nadu, electoral reform is being pushed by a civil society coalition of concerned citizens and NGOs
INDIA’S resources, governments, Parliamentarians and Ministers are on sale. This has been clearly brought out by the recent WikiLeaks revelations. As I said in these columns about two years ago, India’s then “honest” Prime Minister was not only willing to sell his soul but also sacrifice the Government of India itself to conclude the highly controversial Indo-US nuclear deal.
Now, down south in Tamil Nadu, democracy itself is on sale. Political parties are reeling under the WikiLeaks exposure of cash-for-votes at the grassroots: “Bribes from political parties to voters, in the form of cash, goods, or services, are a regular feature of elections in South India (in particular Tamil Nadu). Poor voters expect bribes from political candidates, and candidates find various ways to satisfy voter expectations…. The money to pay the bribes comes from the proceeds of fund-raising, which often crosses into political corruption.”
What a fall in a land where towering leaders like Periyar, Rajaji, Kamaraj and Annadurai preached and practised simplicity, honesty, self-respect and dignity in politics and governance – and Tamil literature extols these virtues! The WikiLeaks exposure has brought national and international shame to the land of Tamils and the Tamil race.

What a fall in a land where towering leaders like Periyar, Rajaji, Kamaraj and Annadurai preached and practised simplicity, honesty, self-respect and dignity in politics.

Also, the very dignity of democracy is in peril. More than anything else, democracy is founded on the dignity of the human being. This is reflected in the Preamble to the Constitution of India, which is the bedrock of our democracy: “We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic and to secure to all its citizens: Justice, social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation; do hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves this Constitution.”
The message is clear – unity and integrity of the nation is possible only if the dignity of the individual is assured. Only a vibrant and functioning democracy can ensure this.
Election is the essence of democracy. Integrity is the salt. But if the salt loses its flavour, it is then good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men. This is precisely what is happening. The saltiness of India’s elections in general and Tamil Nadu’s in particular is fast losing its flavour and the electoral process is being cast out and trodden under the heavy boots of criminal and money power. If this continues unabated, India’s democracy will lose all its dignity and become worthless.

More than anything else, democracy is founded on the dignity of the human being. This is reflected in the preamble to the Constitution of India, which is the bedrock of our democracy.

In Tamil Nadu, there has been a precipitous fall in electoral ethics. Over the last few years, there has been a steady increase of cases involving cash for votes, distribution of household goods and articles of value, mass feeding and supply of liquor – all aimed at garnering electoral support. The directives of the Election Commission and its exhortations notwithstanding, this reprehensible and clandestine activity has shown no signs of let-up.
The direct fallout of this rot is the appalling reality of a severe disconnect between the “first generation voters” and the electoral process. There is a general perception among college students that they are not relevant to democracy, and vice-versa. This is perhaps the worst failure of India’s governance and the most dangerous challenge to the country’s democracy itself.
Fortuitously, the Election Commission of India is not idle on this. Based on the experience gained in the Bihar election in monitoring election expenditure, the Commission has recently issued comprehensive “Instructions on Expenditure Monitoring in Elections” and is backing up its implementation with a well-structured Election Expenditure Monitoring Mechanism comprising Expenditure Observers, Assistant Expenditure Observers, Video Surveillance Teams, a Video Viewing Team, Accounting Teams, an Expenditure Monitoring Control Room and Call Centre, a Media Certification and Monitoring Committee, Flying Squads, a Static Surveillance Team and an Expenditure Monitoring Cell.

The Tamil Nadu Forum for Electoral IntegrityThe Forum believes that people power in general and youth power in particular can combat the venality of electoral corruption. For this the citizens need to be informed and educated about the forces that can destroy our democracy. With this in view, messages are being given out to the community at large:
? Election is the foundation of freedom and democracy and the vote is the most basic of all democratic rights. Go and vote.
? Those who offer bribes for your vote are making you a “partner in loot and corruption”. This will destroy your freedom and your children’s future.
? Once you sell your votes you will have no rights and cannot demand basic services like safety, shelter, water, sanitation, healthcare, education etc. Your voice will not be heard.
? Giving and taking of bribe for votes are criminal offences under the Indian Penal Code.
? Honour, self-respect and dignity are the hallmarks of Tamil culture that need to be preserved.
? Therefore, do not sell them for notes, bottles and packets and suffer as slaves for the next five years.

Besides keeping a vigilant eye on the usual election-related expenses, this mechanism will specifically scrutinize accounts of Self-Help Groups, MFIs, NGOs and so on, including daily auditing of cash flow, check distribution of gifts/serving of food in marriage and community halls, distribution of tokens to be exchanged for gifts or cash, distribution of money through various means, distribution of cash by candidates/political parties along with disbursement of wages under any government scheme, production, storage and distribution of liquor during elections, cash withdrawal from banks and distribution of cash by candidates or political parties along with disbursement of wages under government schemes like NREGA.
But these tasks cannot be accomplished by the EC alone and needs full support from civil society. In Tamil Nadu, this is being attempted by the Forum for Electoral Integrity, a Chennai-based civil society coalition of concerned citizens and NGO organizations who have come together to work towards the ideal of holding elections with integrity

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