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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Saturday, March 3, 2012
OP-ED

Between The Lines

Are our elections free and fair?

Elections in India have lost the carnival spirit because no processions, no buntings, no bands and no posters are allowed by the Election Commission. But this has not decreased the expenses. UP, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa which went to polls have totaled the highest amount ever spent in state elections. The rough guess is around

Rs.2,000 crore. Proportionately, Punjab was at the top of the ladder.

The Election Commission can do little because the money is distributed at unknown places, generally in the hush of night. No Lokpal can detect this because the purchase of vote is at the individual level. And each constituency has hundreds of hands employed by political parties in the name of bandobast. They have to search their heart if the illegal money which they spend bothers them in any way. But then they are driven by the mania of power.

In our times, a volunteer would sling a thaila (bag), carry grams for sustenance and go on foot. This was canvassing at the grassroots. Today, even a party worker would ask for a jeep for travel and expect four meals, starting from breakfast. The communists and the RSS pracharaks are the only ones who remain motivated. But even among them that type of dedication is lessening.

The Election Commission has confiscated nearly Rs.50 crore and some trucks carrying liquor. Instances of "paid news" have also been spotted for action. But all this does not amount to even one per cent of money the candidates and political parties have spent. Yet the credit of making the polling without violence goes to the Election Commission or, for that matter, Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Qureshi. He stretched the polling over six weeks so that the central security forces were available in all the five states. It is a sad reflection on the state police but the force is so much at the beck and call of chief minister that no fair election is possible if it is left to the state. Even local police used to help and acted independently till the mid-seventies when morality was ousted from politics.

One thing which stands out in elections is the enforcement of model conduct code, agreed upon by all political parties some 20 years ago. The ruling Congress is the only party to join issue with the Commission on this point and has threatened to make the code statutory so that the violation is dragged to law courts instead of the Election Commission where the action is immediate and the complaint is attended to forthwith.

The government's thinking is understandable because the Congress has been the biggest sinner. Starting from Law Minister Salman Khurshid to the crown prince, Rahul Gandhi, the party has paid scant attention to model conduct code. It has even played the religious card by announcing that the party, if returned to power, would allocate 9% of reservation to Muslims in education and employment from the overall 27% reservation for the backward classes. (According to the Sachar Committee report the plight of Muslims in India is worse than that of Dalits and that the 80% Muslims are backward).

When the Election Commission took the law minister to task for announcing a sub-quota during electioneering, he first hummed and hawed but subsequently sent a written apology. The matter would have ended then and there if another central minister Beni Prasad had not repeated the sub-quota for Muslims. He has even challenged the Election Commission in a law court. Nobody objects to reservations for the backward Muslims. The objection is to the reservation on religious grounds -- the point which the Constitution of India prohibits.

Rahul Gandhi has been batting on a different pitch. He has been indulging in such antics which do not befit a person who may be India's prime minister. He tears the manifesto of an opposition party and makes remarks which even street urchins would hesitate to. A case has been registered against him at Kanpur where he had a road show violating the understanding on the timing and the route he gave. Had he apologised, the issue would have been sorted out. But he has persisted with it.

In fact, UP saw the entire Gandhi family, including the husband of Priyanka, Sonia Gandhi's daughter. The dynasty somehow has come to believe that it alone strings India together and all political parties are petty and parochial except the Congress. Therefore, the dynasty gathered in UP to pull out the party from a quagmire of non-existence it had been stuck for years. Regrettably, the party should introduce religion as an appeal which the dynasty's head, Jawaharlal Nehru, denounced throughout his life. Muslims constitute about 19% of the electorate and the Congress has jettisoned its secular credentials to placate them.

The BJP is expected to communalise the atmosphere but it is no use blaming it when the Congress throws the first stone. The BJP did not have to get chief minister Narendra Modi of Gujarat pogrom to UP because Uma Bharti had poured enough venom against Muslims. That a party which considers itself an alternative at the centre should have the building of temple at the site where the Babri masjid stood once indicates the policies the BJP would follow if it is ever returned to power.

Unfortunately, the use of caste or, more so, the sub-caste has increased in every segment of activity even in urban areas. This malady has spread even among Muslims who are prohibited from putting their faith in the caste system. In fact, many Hindus have embraced Islam to escape the tyranny of discrimination. But they find the Muslim society as hierarchal as the Hindus'.

Elections have been free and fair and the Election Commission deserves all the kudos. But when money, caste and religion come into play and make a mockery of polls, can they be called free and fair? This is one question which all political parties have to answer, not the Election Commission which has been awaiting for months the government's permission not to allow such candidates who have been charged with big crime like murders, rapes or dacoities.

The writer is an eminent Indian journalist.

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