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Is our democracy broken?

Frederick Noronha


Goa is now in the long wait for its election results. Let’s face it, most of us simply don’t have a clue of what results will emerge from the EVMs, which seem to raise more suspicions with time.

In the run-up to the elections, we are repeatedly told that it’s our right — nay, our duty — to cast our vote. Some well-meaning friends will repeatedly remind us that if ‘good’ people don’t contest, then that leaves the field wide open for the rotten apples to take charge.

This sounds quite good and almost convincing, at least at the surface. But there are at least two major problems with the approach being taken here. One is that the system is geared to get the worst, and the most questionable, to the top. This point has been proven by experience, repeatedly, regardless of which party emerges — big or small, national or local. And, we are told, we have a choice.

The other problem is the citizen has been left with so little say in the whole business of governance. So, it is hardly convincing to see how ‘democracy’ gets reduced to simply pressing one button once every five years (or more often, depending).

The problems with our democracy are actually quite huge.

At one level, efficient Indian innovation and ‘jugaad’ has managed to game or control many aspects of our electoral system. Fake candidates (non-serious trojan horses planted by the frontrunners themselves), making voters vanish from the electoral lists, using poorer migrants as vote-banks to sidetrack more embedded local interests… these issues have been increasingly apparent both in Goa and beyond. Maybe we in Goa feel the impact more intensely, simply because the constituencies are smaller. So are the margins.

The recent news suggesting that Aadhaar data may have been stolen to manipulate elections in Andhra or Telangana is indeed scary. Some saw it as an Indian version of Cambridge Analytica, while the recently-separated states of Telangana and Andhra both ended up accusing each other of stealing the data!

That apart, the lack of party democracy at the grassroots is having a most serious impact. Whether it is the MGP in Goa, the BJP nationwide, or the way Congress managed its state units in its heyday in the not-so-distant past, all stood out for a lack of even a shadow of inner-party democracy. We have no ‘primaries’ or even a chance for the local party workers to make their voices heard. All turn into ‘loyal soldiers’ of the party, which are bullied into implementing the central fiat. For some time now, tax raids, the enforcement directorate and others have been tools to bring recalcitrant party men, or opposition figures, into line.

Goa has attained a special level of notoriety, especially on two counts. Firstly, there has been the ability of our politicians to hop from one party to another, without any shame or remorse. After being lured into changing their sides, they are even willing to risk recontesting elections — on an entirely different ticket and platform. They justify their behaviour on the grounds of doing “what my people (sic) want”. There is no one to hold them accountable; the rules, as they stand, only incentivise greed and party-hopping.

Our state also earned ill fame because of the repeated toppling governments of the 1990s. For this, both the ruling and the Opposition are responsible. If members of one side were opportunist enough to commit treachery at the first opportunity, the other side simply aided and abetted it.

Suddenly, all that political instability stopped after the turn of the century. Did the character of our politicians suddenly change? Far from it. What is more than clear is that our leaders are able to stay in power only if they have the protective umbrella of a Delhi. If their party is not in power at the Centre, it is obvious that they cannot hold on for long at Panaji too. As the Goa CM pointed out recently, if the BJP didn’t get re-elected in Delhi, the party in Goa would have to be content with “swearing from Opposition benches”.

But gaming the electoral system continues at many levels too. Election authorities in Goa went out of their way to convince voters that all was fair and square. But, the inability of top electoral officials nationwide to take a stand against — or even rule — on cases against top ruling political functionaries, is a case of justice delayed and denied.

Even more tragic is the manner in which politicians are mostly allowed to get away with stoking communalism, regionalism or other forms of hate, most of the time. This despite the fact that our laws are filled with some of the strictest colonial-era (and not all necessarily bad) tools for keeping the peace. Yet, our political class can say the nastiest things about sections of the population and get away with it.

If we expect things to get better, we need to question what makes a ‘democracy’. Some steps that came in recent times — the Right to Information Act, declarations of assets by politicians, and gram sabhas — had offered a ray of hope. But the way in which these too can be consistently subverted over time is shocking, to say the least. Governments of varied hues have kept busy whittling away on the powers that the citizens could use through such laws. In Goa, it was the Congress government which gave us an early and impressive Right to Information law, and it was the same party’s government which went about emasculating it by the time it got replaced by a Central law. Other parties have contributed generously to whittling it down.

Even more shocking was the lack of transparency in the ‘electoral bonds’ brought about by the Modi government. It is to be seen whether such steps can be reversed, will attain their much-touted goals, or will simply get worse over time.

The rot at the top reaches the bottom, thanks to the system of patronage at play. Panchayats in Goa know that if they support the ruling dispensation — whichever one — they can do just as they please at the village level.

Sometimes, the cure can be worse than the disease. After the spate of defections around the 1980s and 1990s, the anti-defection law came about. This has resulted in a dictatorship of the party in parliament and the assemblies. No elected politician can vote against the party whip; so a Britain-like situation, where some politicians sincerely disagreed against their party-line on Brexit, cannot be envisaged here. Thus, a small coterie can take over even a political party. By the time this is checked, the damage is already done.

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