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Needed: Governance, not politics

Exit polls have been notoriously unreliable in the past, especially in terms of their specific predictions regarding the eventual outcome for the contesting parties. Nevertheless, its reliability or otherwise notwithstanding, the responses of those who were covered under the latest DRS Exit Poll on May 10,2001, in the States where Assembly Elections were held on that date, was interesting. After the Tehelka exposures, the Prime Minister had spoken of a ‘wake up call’ to the nation’s leadership. The latest exit poll is another such ‘wake up call’ to a political class inordinately given to somnolence, and the eventual election results promise to provide another jolt to the lethargic.

It is now clear beyond doubt that, if there is a single issue that dominates the concerns of the electorate, it is governance, and the ‘anti-incumbency’ vote displays swings that are clearly linked to the perceived competence of the incumbent regime. Nevertheless, unlike past elections, these swings have tended to be less extreme than was expected, indicating fairly clearly that the electorate’s assessment of the available alternatives is far from flattering. Earlier elections violently ‘threw out’ incumbent parties, decimating their representation in the reconstituted Assemblies. Now, the voter appears to be wondering: is the other party any better? There is a clear re-examination of electoral philosophies and responses in the currently visible trends. And it is evident that, even among the victors, there is little cause for euphoria. There are now no surviving fiefdoms that particular political parties or leaders can claim as unassailably their own.

Of course, all the political parties have, in one region or the other, sought to downplay the significance of the election results, but it needs to be remembered that the area covered by the present elections represents as many as 110 Parliamentary constituencies, and the message that is emerging is far from palatable for any of the parties in the fray.

There is some evidence that this is a message that has not entirely been missed by the various political commentators and particularly by representatives of these various parties, all of whom have, willy nilly, been reduced to a degree of sobriety even where they expect a victory. There is, indeed, a tacit acceptance of the fact that all political parties have been equally bad in governance, and in meeting the common expectations and concerns of the people. If the structure and composition of the existing political formations are still, in any measure, responsive to the imperatives of public perceptions, there will have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and try to correct the uniformly disastrous image that is their common dower today. Unfortunately, the same tired old faces mouthing the usual clichés with contrived vehemence inspire little hope that this can or will happen in the foreseeable future.

Democracy, however, – and this is true even for a democracy as imperfect as our own – is about the power of the people, and it cannot remain possible for India’s political leadership to entirely ignore the manifest and popular will indefinitely and completely. Despite the nepotism, the dynastic pressures, the corruption, the immorality and the sheer inertial force of the country’s political megaliths, the threat of imminent extinction will stimulate at least some dynamic elements to a more appropriate response.

There is one particular area in which increasing electoral pressure for change is now visible, and a heartening aspect of the responses in the Exit Poll was the proportion of the electorate that now regards law and order as a critical electoral issue. This is extraordinarily significant, since I have always maintained that improvements in law and order, and in justice administration, will only come about when these become election issues. All political parties, both in the States and at the Centre, should take clear cognizance of this fact and, to the extent that they wish to construct an acceptable electoral platform for themselves in any forthcoming contest, they will have to initiate fundamental changes both within the law and order administration of their existing regimes, and in their manifestos. If there is any process of introspection in the wake of the electoral results, it must focus on the following critical issues relating to internal security administration and policing in the States and at the Centre:

The first element that has long topped the agenda of discourse is, of course, the depoliticisation of policing. The police has been treated as a blind instrumentality of the party in power for far too long, and has, eventually and in vast areas of the country, been entirely emasculated in the process, leaving it powerless against the rising forces of organized crime, political violence and terrorism. This is demoralizing for the Force, of course, but the real price is paid overwhelmingly in the blood of innocents. Today, the spectre of organized crime, terrorist warlord-ism and anarchy casts an ominous shadow over widening areas of the country, and if the system is not to break down in its entirely, the very bases, ideology and practice of policing will have to be revolutionized. The introduction of modern technologies and management systems is now an urgent priority, as the power and lethality of the forces of disorder grow. The entire operation of the police forces throughout the country must be professionalised and shielded against the debilitating partisan political interference that is currently the norm.

Law and order administration, however, cannot improve significantly without radical and parallel improvements in justice administration. While the police are routinely and uniformly blamed for the increasing loss of control over the criminal elements in society, the fact is, the judiciary’s inability to punish within a realistic time frame is, at least psychologically, far more damaging than any failures of investigation or detection can be. Unfortunately, any initiative to revamp the criminal justice system founders on the standoff between the judiciary and the political executive. The judiciary resists reform on the ground that its ills flow purely from a lack of manpower and resources; the government, on the other hand, has tended to insist that the crisis demand internal institutional reforms in the Bar and on the Bench. There is at least some evidence that the resistance to reforms within the judiciary is linked to the preservation of extraordinary privileges that judges enjoy, and jealously guard. Be that as it may, as long as these rigid postures persist, the possibilities of significant improvement are remote. The only solution is that the government and the Apex Court overcome conventional adversarial orientations and sit together to define solutions that are appropriate and adequate to meet the challenges of the disturbing situation currently being faced. A non-partisan study of the points of delay, of procedural excesses, and of other distortions that undermine the efficient dispensation of criminal justice, is needed, as is decisive action to implement identified programmes of reform.

Unfortunately, the lessons of each successive election tend to be lost in their immediate aftermath, as the media and political parties lapse into routine spectacles of the analysis of numbers, alliances, caste, tribal and regional affiliations and vote banks, ‘swings’, ‘cycles’ and other statistical inventions. And in all this, the one element that is lost is the fact that an election is not just an exercise to throw one set of unprincipled politicians out of office, and ring in another, but is an opportunity to learn what the people think of their leaders and want from them.

An interesting aside in this context, unexpectedly, is the fact that, in Assam, the most strife-afflicted State among those that went to the polls, the highest priority identified by the electorate was not violence, but poverty and unemployment. These again, are issues as distanced from the contemporary politics of unethical alliances, false consensus, appeasement and expediency, as any reforms in internal security and justice administration.

(Published in The Pioneer, May 12, 2001)





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