The Poll Pot brimmeth over

If 1952 were to be taken as the starting point of electoral democracy and had elections themselves stuck to the Constitutional calender of 5-year-intervals, India should have gone through 12 elections by now. But we may well be staring at the 15th, come 2008, if current political trends are any indication. While the first four decades ending 1989 saw 9 polls – just one more than the ‘quota’ – the nineties went through four, bringing down the electoral average to every four years rather than five. Of course, polls in 2008 would stick to the new average. But the fact that the LS polls have happened in virtually all months of the calendar over the years proves how much the Constitutional calculations have been vitiated.

And with three elections too many over fifty-five years, and with each election costing the exchequer around Rs 600 crores, that is a whopping Rs 2000 crores down the drain. A gorgeous price indeed for the games and gimmicks of the politicos who have all jointly and severally engineered those unwanted and unwarranted extra doses of the democratic circus. And if the monies spent by parties and candidates and the resultant commercial activities that get spawned are taken into account, Indian elections are a massive economic exercise with the democracy aspect getting dwarfed. The financial turnover goes up if the polls deliver a split verdict and horse-trading reigns in which case, the dwarfed democracy gets totally diluted too!

In our three-tier system of democratic governance, Lok Sabha polls are only a footnote. There are the elections to two scores plus States and Union Territories and the countless local bodies. But while local bodies polls are notorious for not happening on time, the poll-count of States would be worse than the LS poll record thanks primarily to Art 356. In TN alone, this art has been used four times, leading to untimely polls. And the President rule touted for TN most recently, by the SC, has somehow materialised in Karnataka, with the Assembly there lapsing into a coma. Indeed, elections, instead of being a means in a democracy looks to have become an end in itself here. They are the only visible vignettes of our democracy. Rest of the time, as the politicos rule the roost, democracy lies in State!

Frequent polls, like frequent bandhs have become a huge drag on society. Barring the 1980 Lok Sabha polls whence the people themselves were eager to see the end of the 30-month Janata Joke, every other snap-poll had happened over the heads of the voters and owing mostly to the whim or paranoia of a politico holding the aces. The Ninth LS, elected in 1989, had two PMs like the earlier Janata regime, but perished in 1991 after Rajiv pulled the rug from under Chandrashekar’s feet. Rajiv’s grouse was that he was spied upon and his proof: two constables loitering listlessly outside his residence. He himself was felled by more potent individuals in the run-up to the polls that ensued.

The LS that took off in 1996 crashlanded in 1998 after seeing three PMs: Vajpayee, Deve Gowda and I.K.Gujral. It fell because the Congress under Kesri but remote-controlled by Sonia could not tolerate the presence of two DMK ministers in the UF Cabinet after the Dravidian party was indicted by the Jain commission in Rajiv’s assassination. It was poll-time again in 1998 and Vajpayee soon sat on the saddle albeit after hiccups emanating from J. The hiccups became hitches and the hitches soon turned into high tension as the threesome of Jaya, Maya and Mamatha rocked Vajpayee’s boat alternately. But J it was who delivered the final fatal punch. During the ominous thirteenth month, the depression that developed in Poes Garden moved to the Capital and the storm that raged in a tea cup there on a fateful April night floored Vajpayee’s regime. One ‘secular’ vote cast by a dubious candidate called Gomango cost the nation another Rs 600 crores. Yes, polls it was in Oct 1999. And now, 18 months ahead of schedule, poll talk is already in the air, with yet another Lok Sabha set for short circuit. The Leftists are now playing Govt-busters.

India’s pro-US leanings and the nuclear ‘sell-out’ are the pretexts. But for the lay voters laid low by back-to-back polls, the nuclear issue, though a matter of national sovereignity and security, still falls in the realm of experts. Now, does it warrant a mid-term poll? And if a poll is indeed fated, will the Left assure the nation that it will not break bread with the Cong, post-poll, if the same arithmetic prevails? Or will secularism stage a comeback with the n-deal on backburner, and after having burnt another Rs 600 crores? But what off the Cong itself? The party that could not stand the presence of two DMK ministers in a regime that it supported from outside is now willing to offer the same DMK as many Cabinet berths as it demands in ‘its own’ Government. And the Congmen who then accused K in Rajiv’s murder are now his biggest fans. Or the BJP which is readying to align with the very J who dumped Vajpayee.

But their political promiscuity apart, will all those fickle and irresponsible rug-pullers ever be made to pay for the costs and turmoil they inflicted on the nation? Never! One can instead bet on them to be on parade in Delhi. And that is the rub. With arithmetic and not ideology reigning, every poll throws up the usual suspects. Be it UPA or NDA, barring Cong and BJP that form the core, all other allies are tradeable and transferable. For Rs 600 crores, you hardly get money’s worth in the form of new faces, parties or formations; a new Lok Sabha is only in name. Govts may fall, but many MPs and Ministers stay put. Lord Rama forbid, but 2008 may even see TR Baalu building roads, if not breaking bridges, on behalf of NDA or J discovering virtues in Sonia, as in 1999!

And that takes us to Italy. The European country notorious for political instability, has had 61 Governments in the last sixty years! But there have been only 15 elections, not sixty, yielding an average of four Governments in between two elections. That is, not every government-fall has led to a poll. Maybe we can borrow more from Italy than just Sonia: the art of keeping the poll-count low even as Governments and PMs change. In any case, the economy seems to have become immune to regime changes. In fact, it is time too to mull over fixed LS terms. After all why should the voter keep advancing his agony and be paying for it too?

PS: The article was written before the PM and the Super PM ruled out early polls. But those familiar with the ‘coalition dharma’ as practised in Indian politics may still find this article relevant.

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Jawahar T R