The price of power

The price of power
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First Published: Sat, Apr 04 2009. 12 30 AM IST

Updated: Thu, Apr 30 2009. 02 34 PM IST
It is a book written by a former chief election commissioner (CEC) who oversaw the epic 14th Lok Sabha election in 2004; and it is about the election process as a key element of the democratic set-up in India. It’s logical then that T.S. Krishnamurthy’s The Miracle of Democracy: India’s Amazing Journey, a ringside view of the 2004 election, should be an engaging read.
People’s mandate: (left) Women wait to cast their vote during the Gujarat assembly election (PTI); and Krishnamurthy came from the Indian Revenue Service. (AFP)
But it isn’t really, since it has been conceived more as a textbook than a book filled with the insights of an insider. Krishnamurthy’s book, which has been released well ahead of the general election starting 16 April, disappoints thoroughly on this count.
The book does not eschew controversy altogether. The problem lies in the fact that it titillates the reader more than it illuminates or entertains. Krishnamurthy protects himself and puts the onus entirely on the reader to identify the nameless, controversial people he talks about—you have to do your own research or be informed enough to know who they are. Few readers will make the effort.
As a textbook, it is indeed informative. The first part, which is about one-fifth of the book, deals with Krishnamurthy’s rise in the bureaucracy despite not being part of the hallowed Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and his encounters with anonymous ministers. It can be skipped.
Thereafter, Krishnamurthy walks readers through the election process and raises some fundamental questions, which eventually lead him to make a case for electoral reforms. For instance, he questions the decision to declare a winner on the basis of the first-past-the-post system. Given the growing fragmentation of the polity, this frequently results in a winner who has got less than 50% of the total votes. In the same vein, he throws up a very interesting factoid: In 1989, 117 political parties contested the elections and 24 managed to get a representative elected to the Lok Sabha; in contrast, by the 2004 elections, the number of political parties increased to 230, but only 40 have elected representatives.
Similarly, Krishnamurthy also questions the funding mechanism of political parties. Implicit in this is his worry about the growing clout of money in determining the electoral outcome rather than the democratic process itself, inspired by the agenda of political parties and their candidates.
According to official estimates, the forthcoming general election is expected to cost the Election Commission (EC), the independent body that conducts elections in the country, government and political parties Rs5,000 crore. This figure is quoted in a study by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS), a New Delhi-based research firm, which also says that the general election will actually see parties and candidates spend Rs10,000 crore— double of what was spent in 2004 and what is officially estimated. Data provided by CMS shows that spending on elections has accelerated steadily, coinciding with the diminishing influence of the two main national parties.
The Rs10,000 crore figure is five times what was spent in the 1996 election. One-fifth of the spending is expected to be on advertising “across print and electronic media” and poll surveys, while 30% will go towards hiring vehicles, aircrafts and paying the salaries of party workers during the 75-day campaign. The rest of the money will be spent on activities not allowed by the EC, including payouts to individual voters.
The EC only permits a candidate to spend Rs25 lakh while campaigning for a seat in the Lok Sabha.
Interestingly, these are issues that are rarely questioned or debated, both within the government and among political parties. So far, a solution to these vexing issues has eluded us, largely because it is difficult to arrive at a consensus. Part of the problem is that the Indian polity is evolving—incrementally most of the time, because the roots of caste and regional affiliations are historical and run deep.
Given this scenario, Krishnamurthy’s book offers a timely warning. As he says, the imperatives of undertaking electoral reforms can no longer be ignored: “Elections are essential but not enough; it is possible to have elections without having a sustainable democracy. And, if the elections themselves are flawed, it is worse than not having an election at all, for it opens the floodgates for social injustice, exploitation and authoritarianism.”
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First Published: Sat, Apr 04 2009. 12 30 AM IST