Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Opinion | Decline in political debate leaves democracy strained

Amid caste based slogans, showering of money on poor voters is part of our politics

To strengthen the foundation of our polity, voters must resist trends that are fatal for the country.

In the last Lok Sabha elections, when campaigning was over for the last phase, citizens heaved a sigh of relief. Over the next five years, as many as 25 Assembly elections were held and, at each one, they witnessed the painful sight of a decline in the candidates’ behaviour. Now once again, we are witness to a sharp fall in standards.

The Election Commission (EC) has finally made some effort to set things right by taking a few tough decisions but its path is no less difficult. When there are charges of violations of the model code of conduct (MCC) against all the main leaders of all the leading parties, it is but natural.

But our leaders are clever. There are no laws, rules or regulations that they are not able to circumvent. The EC clamped a ban of 48 to 72 hours on Yogi Adityanath, Mayawati, Maneka Gandhi and Azam Khan from campaigning. In keeping with political decency, they should have kept quiet and introspected. But, this was not the case. They found other ways to hog the headlines.

After a few hours of this diktat by the EC, Mayawati called a press conference and alleged that this decision has been taken on the instructions of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). Calling the EC anti-low caste, Mayawati came down heavily on it. When news outfits are so keen to harness the digital tide, such statements not only hog the headlines but also become viral quickly. Mayawati, an upcoming star of social media, knows this well.

The social media data tells you that as compared to the ethical political comments, bitter and controversial statements draw people’s attention much faster. Behen ji did that and succeeded. Her statement along with the decisions of the EC kept spreading. In this matter, she proved to be better than the other three leaders who were banned from campaigning for a certain period.

Adityanath knows that his admirers like him more as a religious leader than a capable and efficient administrator. He used another method—he went and sat in a Hanuman temple near the Gomti river in Lucknow. Now, the image was reaching the entire world through TV and mobile phone cameras amid slogans of Jai Siya Ram. Whatever the EC had to do, it did, but nobody can stop someone from worshipping. Yogi’s temple visit was bound to go viral and it did. He did not stop here.

The next day he visited Ayodhya and Devipatan. And in Rampur, Azam Khan’s son, a legislator, alleged that the ban on his father was because he is a Muslim. It’s clear that the EC’s decision couldn’t check the mobilization efforts of these leaders. Reining in leaders who indulge in the politics of caste and community is not easy.

In 1995, when Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray despite repeated warnings by the EC, did not stop spouting poison against one particular community, he was banned from contesting elections and casting vote for six years. But this only increased Thackeray’s popularity. In the next elections, his party’s chief minister occupied the Mantralaya and his party members got important posts in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet.

This is only natural in a country that feels safe in the trenches of caste, religion, language, community and regionalism. Unfortunately, this sad story doesn’t end here.

The use of money power in elections is the second major disaster.

According to income tax department sources, more than 695 crore have been recovered in these elections so far. It’s clear that black money is very much around.

Amid caste and religion based slogans, showering of money on poor voters is part and parcel of our politics. Voters now must understand that this sort of greed is undermining their rights.

Exactly how dangerous this hysteria and greed is for our country and people is evident from these elections.

It is not surprising then that The Economist had kept India in the category of Flawed Democracy in the Democracy Index 2018, published last year. This report revealed that the world’s largest democracy fared badly on the parameters of electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties.

If people do not start resisting these trends and tendencies which are fatal to democracy from this very election, then the foundation of our democracy which was built on the sacrifices of our forefathers will continue to splinter and become weaker after every poll. The consequences of this are too frightening even to contemplate.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekarkahin