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Lawlessness: All same-same

Political posturing is becoming increasingly strident as elections draw closer in Uttar Pradesh, and some parties have sought to draw attention to the collapse of security and law and order (L&O) in the State, and to the enveloping corruption underlying this, as possible election planks. This will generate a natural enthusiasm in the media, in the middle classes, and among a species of activists who believe the world will be transformed by candlelight marches; but is unlikely to impact particularly dramatically on electoral outcomes.

There are many and complex reasons for this, perhaps the most significant of which is the fact that no political formation today offers a credible alternative. Every single party is deeply criminalized; every party systematically undermines L&O administration; every party has resisted or distorted Police reforms, even after specific directives from the Supreme Court. The lawlessness in UP is not something that has manifested itself abruptly under the present dispensation; it has been a continuously worsening trend in the State under a succession of Chief Ministers. Indeed, this is a trend that afflicts, in varying measure, the country at large under what are, each passing year, steadily worsening kleptocracies.

The sheer enormity of the crisis is visible in the rising index of criminals who sit in the country’s legislatures. According to the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), the present Lok Sabha has 162 Members of Parliament (MPs) with criminal charges against them – nearly 30 per cent of the total membership. 76 MPs, 14 per cent of the current strength, have been charged with heinous offences – including murder, rape, abduction and extortion. In 2002, the proportion of MPs with criminal charges was below 10 per cent of the total strength of the Lok Sabha. Significantly, when the Election Commission sought to make declaration of criminal backgrounds and financial assets for candidates mandatory in 2002, political parties across the board vigorously resisted the move. It was only after the Supreme Court stepped in to endorse the EC’s directive that the parties complied with extreme reluctance, protesting that the Court was trespassing on Parliamentary privilege.

Despite the apparent and increasing ‘public anger’ against deepening public insecurity, the virtual collapse of the justice system, and the criminalization of politics, the record of the recent Assembly Elections gives no cause for comfort. 31 per cent or 257 of 820 MLAs elected to the five new Assemblies – Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal – have criminal cases pending against them, of which 133 are accused of heinous crimes. These criminal politicians are drawn from every major party.

Under the circumstances, during the election process in UP every party can be expected to divert public attention to criminal candidates in the adversary camp, easily muddying the waters and confusing the electorate, once again to canalize votes into traditional caste, communal and other divisive vote banks.

Indeed, real issues of policy have never determined the outcome of elections in India, and it is essentially vote bank, polarizing and factional manipulation – in addition to either a general affirmation or rejection of the incumbent party on undifferentiated performance parameters – that prevails.

Media commentary and political posturing, moreover, are entirely unreliable indices of public sentiment. Sensationalist reportage and commentary may conjure a sense of popular outrage, but the man on the street has no realistic way of assessing the law and order situation or the state of policing – unless he becomes a direct victim of crime or of police negligence or excess. However, such affected individuals, in a situation of deteriorating L&O administration, are not bonded together into a sympathetic voting mass.

Indeed, getting an objective assessment of security and L&O administration is difficult even for security professionals, given the country’s general environment and the kind of data put out by the Police and Home Departments. When I was Superintendent of Police in Guwahati in 1969, for instance, I got a strong note from Police Headquarters criticizing the ‘rise’ in the crime rate in my jurisdiction. I wrote back, pointing out that the crime rate was yet to touch the levels that prevailed in 1939. Crime rates after Independence had been artificially lowered by ‘burking’ – the suppression of a significant proportion of FIRs – a practice I had brought to an end.

Recent reports have highlighted a number of particularly disturbing incidents in UP, but it remains unlikely this will decisively influence polling. It is useful to recall the extraordinary and counter-intuitive experience in Mumbai after the 26/11 terrorist attacks. The city’s habitually somnambulant elites were momentarily galvanized to march out in their hundreds in candlelight vigils and to participate breathlessly on orchestrated TV debates. The campaign was sustained at a crescendo till the General Elections of April-May 2009 and the State Assembly Elections of October 2009, where it was believed that Mumbaikars would vote in extraordinary numbers on the “core issues” of terrorism, internal security and policing. The reality was disappointing: the turnout was a low 43.52 per cent and 45.98 per cent, respectively, well below participation rates in many areas highly affected by extremist violence in the country.

High voter participation, moreover, has little impact on selecting parties and leaders who can impact decisively on issues of widespread popular concern. Kashmir has seen steadily rising voter turnouts in successive elections, culminating in a 75 per cent plus participation in the ongoing Panchayat Elections (April-June 2011), but this has had little impact on the quality of governance, on administrative accountability, or on the broader issues of peace and security in the State. Indeed, election after election has thrown up the same faces, the same slogans and the same patterns of polarized, often disruptive, politics, with little bearing on the quality of administration.

Part of the problem is also the barriers to, and pathways of, entry into politics. Money and muscle power have become entrenched in the electoral process. It is unlikely, if not impossible, for individuals of merit to secure election without these, other than through patronage of an established political party or caucus. In seeking such access, however, such individuals would be forging compromises with the very systems they set out to transform.

The current ‘national’ debate on corruption and the Lok Pal Bill highlights the many pitfalls of these processes. Indeed, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has not shown as much vigour, intensity and focus on any single policy or initiative in more than seven years in Government, as it has in its defence of corruption, its resistance to effective legislation against corruption, and its obstruction of legal processes to recover black money salted out in foreign banks, estimated at well over a trillion dollars. Some highly educated and eminent individuals, including senior ministers, have come out in the open to launch shrill campaigns of denigration, deception and character assassination, to divert attention from the real issue, and to undermine any coherent initiative to secure what is manifestly in the national interest. Specifically, the argument that unelected ‘civil society’ is trying to ‘hijack’ the democratic process, is an effort to destroy any emerging alternatives. The ‘civil society’ alternatives in this campaign have also quickly exposed their clay feet – their own incoherence, incompetence and contradictions.

The truth is, there is an abysmal crisis of leadership in the country today. Worse, there is little possibility of change, with an uneducated, backward, impoverished, caste- and community-riven electorate, lacking all constructive alternatives, as well as the capacity to make an informed judgement in favour of these.


(Published in Hindustan Times, June 28, 2011)





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