Election: a paradigm shift

May 29, 2024

The challenge of democracy

Election in India is considered the biggest carnival of democracy in the world. The summer 24 is hotter, and so is the election this year in India. The festival determines who will lead 1.45 billion people to their future. 

The election should have been a liberal mechanism for electorates to judge the delivery of the incumbent and act accordingly. The verdict also should reflect it. The verdict should desirably reflect the free opinions of people with no prejudice. But does it work so? I doubt it because our democracy is passing through a testing time. As the clamour goes on, our systems of elections have entered a new phase that we can hardly be happy with. 

In India, we boast about democratic values, and the election is considered sacred as the cornerstone of democracy that our Constitution is built on. India has an Election Commission (ECI) vested with immense powers and sharp teeth to bite the wrongdoers, though it hardly uses the powers. It has powers on executive mechanisms after it issues election notification. We must make it act without bias. Though often its decisions are challenged at the highest constitutional court, accusing it of inaction on election code violation, its position is never seen as less respectable. Most of the time, the Supreme Court rejects a petition against it after hearing its argument. We are yet to begin doubting the sanctity of Supreme Court judgments and the sacredness of our mighty Constitution. But there were occasions when the ECI's credibility looked waning. 

It seems, ECI has lost grip on the parties' behaviour that polluted the political system of the country. The polluted system made people either unfaithful or little faithful about the system. ECI often denigrates its position by refusing to rein in the foul practices of contestants and contesting parties. Changing goalposts of parties in the electoral field and splitting parties’ shifting loyalties confuse electorates. Parties after vertical split join rival factions. One gets the old symbol and the other finds another symbol. Each one claims to be the original. Shiv Sena and Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra are two good examples. It seemed that two main coalitions, which are the two opposite poles – the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and INDI Alliance bought the share of the splits. That is unstoppable.  There is a vast difference between pre-election and post-election political scenarios. Parties change positions, principles, and promises. Words in the manifesto prove to be a large stock of mirage. That is one side of the unchecked political promises and commotions. Electorates are inadequately informed, adding to their confusion.

The carnival is now turning itself into a toxic affair. That may pain everyone who has been seeing the elections in India over the years. The process looks drastically changed, not because of the emergence of intense hostility among political parties but a paradigm shift in the campaign style. Nobody is bothered about political ethics these days. Ethics is costly for every politician and political party. It often seems there are no rules which bind the offenders. Political parties, interestingly, sworn by the constitution, are not bothered about the spirit of the rules but the fine print. The rest are adjustable arrangements. Political parties precast their actions and election campaigns based on the fine print of the code of conduct. Every election violation becomes interpretably correct. ECI appears soft on everyone, especially ruling parties.

Until TN Sheshan came to head ECI, no one knew about it and its powers to discipline the political parties. It has a great power to restrain political parties and teach them how to behave. Post the Sheshan era, ECI is back to its shell, I am afraid. The challenge ahead for democracy is greater – at least if you don’t want to call it a threat.