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Both the news stories almost came together. First, during the covid-19 period, the average income of Delhiites reduced by an average of 20,000. If Delhiites are facing such a hard time, then one can easily think about the condition in the rest of India. The second news was from Assam. More than 18 crore in cash, alcohol, drugs and other banned substances were recovered in just 11 days. This is a record. On the one hand, the world’s largest democracy is poorer than before and, on the other, the political system is using cash and liquor to woo voters for elections, the biggest celebration of democracy.

The reports reminded of an old anecdote. Back then, Janata Dal was in power at the Centre. A dinner was organized by a member of the Union cabinet. A number of ministers, members of Parliament (MPs) and members of legislative assembly (MLAs) were attending it. A few like me were also invited, who may be misplaced, buy crazily involved. Before moving to the Lutyen’s bungalow the minister’s residence was in the posh area of Vasant Kunj in Delhi. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth but was fond of calling himself a socialist.

At that party, a Rajasthan MLA was bragging that you cannot do anything about voters, they need liquor and money during elections. After the election, they complained to us all, but there is not a single demand to build roads, schools or hospitals. Everyone needs a job, contract or some back-door facility. While holding a glass of some rare brand of foreign liquor, the host joked that’s why he saves more than his entire salary and allowances from the assembly, only for liquor, cash and other needs for the entire tenure of five years. That’s how he had hold over all the musclemen.

Everyone in the room chortled in amusement on hearing his words. But that night I couldn’t sleep. A popular slogan back then was reverberating in my mind: ‘Raja nahi faqir hai, Bharat ki taqdeer hai’. They were companions of the Fakir or Raja Sahab—Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh— and, they all were making me sleepless. What I didn’t know was that the coming days would be much more strange, with more weird faces and masks!

Since then, a whole new generation has emerged in India’s electoral politics. It is said that revolutions come on the shoulders of the youth, but the figures in Assam are telling us something else. It is true that statistics do not always tell the whole truth, but they definitely indicate some of it. Consider these facts. It does not matter at all which party won the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, but the figures that the Election Commission made public are shocking. During the 2014 elections, cash of over 30 crore and more than 17 million kg of drugs were recovered from across the country. Action was taken against more than 1.1 million people in this connection. And, during the next general election, cash worth 844 crore, liquor worth 304 crore, narcotics worth more than 1,200 crore and jewellery or gifts worth about 1,000 crore were recovered.

Clearly, within a short span of five years, this evil practice had increased by around three times. The Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) found during its investigation that out of the 539 members in Lok Sabha, 475 are crorepatis. Of these, 266 have assets of over 5 crore. Note, there has been a steady increase in the number of millionaire parliamentarians in our country. In 2009 Lok Sabha 58% of them were crorepatis. In 2014, their number rose to 82%, while 88% in the current house are millionaires. Will there be only millionaires in the next Parliament?

It does not end here. Recently, 51% of those who got elected in the Bihar assembly have serious criminal cases against them. The previous assembly had 40% members having criminal background. If you look at the current data of Assam in the light of these facts, then you will understand easily how the elections are being fought. I would not have any complaint with the people sitting in the legislatures of the country if the income of the common man would have also increased accordingly. In the covid-19 era, on one hand, the efforts for poverty alleviation has suffered a terrible blow, on the other hand, there is a particular section that already has eradicated its poverty. How sinister is this disparity in our democracy?

Such a high-cost election can never lead to a healthy democracy. There was a time when Raja, Maharaja or Bhupathi used to contest in large numbers. Ram Manohar Lohia was the leader of the poor. To bring forward the people of that section, he had given the slogan—one note, one vote. His candidates used to spread a bag during their meetings and appealed to the public to give a one-rupee note, and they could vote for them later. Many of these people won and became big leaders, but most of them changed as soon as they came to power. If they had followed the principles of their leader, then surely the face of our democracy would have been different.

One can regret these things, but mere regret does not change the situation. For the last five decades, the collective consciousness that is needed for change has been continuously hammered through money power. This is not a good sign for our democratic structure.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan.

The views expressed are personal

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