India has over 800 million voters. The grand election circus of the largest democracy commenced in early March and this will continue until mid-May when the results are declared on May 16th. Transparency and accountability are at the core in the present elections. Every contesting candidate’s complete information is available online on the click of a button. This information ranges from personal profile to assets and wealth owned by the candidate and his/her immediate family members, sources of income, business interests, criminal record and past electoral history and legislative performance. For some of the well-known candidates this is even published in newspapers and is discussed on television news channels. Civil Society organizations like PRS Legislature and Association for Democratic Reforms actively analyse such information and make it available in public domain. Thanks to technology there is an overload of information. So Transparency Zindabad! (Long live transparency)
Election Process Accountability
The access to such information has led common citizens and opponent candidates to pick up sensitive information and make complaints to the Election Commission (which conducts the elections) to cancel nominations of candidates. In addition huge complaints also come to the Election Commission about violation of code of conduct and these further burdens the Election Commission to investigate, monitor, issue show cause notices and take actions. So democracy is at full play. As a citizen you can record a campaign speech of any candidate on your mobile phone and send the clip having any objectionable material like hate speech to the Election Commission for review and action. While citizens participate actively in supporting the watch dog process the actions taken are often disappointing because it usually ends with a formal apology, or at best a brief sanction against campaigning in a particular region. Some violations have been exceptional and should have resulted in cancelation of candidature but the Election Commission has failed to take stringent action. Some examples below:
· The country’s agriculture minister Sharad Pawar in one of his campaign speeches says that citizens can actually vote twice in the election because of the election being conducted in various phases. He gave an example to workers in Mumbai saying that back in your villages election is on 17th April so go and vote there, then come back to Mumbai and vote again (if you are registered in Mumbai also) on 24th April. But be sure that you wipe out the election ink mark on your finger. When questioned about his statement Pawar said that he made the statement as a joke. When questioned by the Election Commission he apologised and the matter ended
· Top BJP (the Hindu right wing party) leaders like Amit Shah have gone on record making hate speeches against Muslims and urging Hindus to vote for the BJP so that Muslims can be taught a lesson later if the BJP comes to power. A guarded apology followed and the Election Commission could not do much further
· Candidates in their campaigns get away making casteist statements which are violative not only of the code of conduct but also the Constitution. You apologise or say you were quoted out of context and the dust settles
· The Samajwadi (Socialist) Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav gets away with a statement that rapists are just misguided boys and do not deserve a harsh punishment and if they come to power they will reverse the recent changes made in the rape laws that makes the punishment for rape very severe
What we observe is that transparency is very strong in terms of access to information, active citizen engagement does happen but appropriate actions don’t follow and hence accountability fails. So in this manner the election engine of India chugs along and has presently (17th April) crossed the half way mark.
The analysis of candidate information by ADR shows that 23% candidates of the current government currently have criminal cases against them and in case of the BJP, which opinion polls indicate is the frontrunner for the new government, 34% candidates have current criminal cases registered against them. The Election Commission says that they can only disqualify candidates if they have been convicted. When political parties are confronted as to why they have put up so many candidates with criminal records they say that these are our key candidates who will help us win and if the EC has no objection then its okay. This shows the complete absence of ethics amongst political parties in selection of their candidates. The thrust of this election is that the ruling combine has been there for 10 years and it is time for Change. Is this the change voters want?
Giving Change a Chance?
In the last two years politics in India has seen huge churning. The current regime has seen its worse phase in performance with a downslide in its key flagship development programs like NRHM (health), SSA (Education), MGNREGS (employment guarantee), and food security among others due to underfunding and mismanagement. The economy’s growth is down from 9% to 5% as part of the global recession. Thanks to the CAG’s audit reports and the courts huge scams and corruption has been exposed and for the first time there have been convictions and top politicians and bureaucrats are cooling their heels in jails. So there is a general anti-incumbency mood against the present government.
Civil society organizations ran a huge anti-corruption campaign across the country demanding a strong anti-corruption law and setting up the institution of the Jan Lokpal (Peoples Ombudsman) to investigate and try cases of corruption. The campaign got politicized and in late 2013 they formed a political party and contested elections in the state of Delhi. Citizens of Delhi showed their angst against the ruling Congress party and voted them out completely. While the BJP was the largest single party they did not have the requisite numbers to form the government. So as the second largest party the anti-corruption movement now called the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP or Common Peoples Party) was invited to form the government with external support of the party they ousted. This government led by the anti-corruption crusader Arvind Kejriwal lasted for 49 days and quit as they could not get their Jan Lokpal bill passed in the state assembly. Subsequently the national elections were announced and AAP too decided to go national and is contesting over 400 seats of the 543 total.
Prior to the current elections various opinion polls have been conducted and what is apparent across the board is that people want change. Across opinion polls there is unanimity that the BJP led right wing coalition is set to cross the half way mark of 272 seats. The BJP campaign centres around its prospective Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi who is a controversial figure for his support of the anti-Muslim carnage in Gujarat state of which he is the Chief Minister. Opinion polls state that there is a Modi wave across most of the country, especially in west, north and central India. Modi is viewed as a fascist with strong linkages with various right wing Hindu organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and he idolizes Adolf Hitler. So in progressive circles as well as amongst minorities he is seen as a threat to the democratic fabric of India. So in contrast to the Modi wave that opinion polls have projected there is a silent coalition of threatened groups, especially minorities and dalits who would en masse vote against Modi. Further given that across the country regional parties have a strong presence, the likelihood of individual regional parties gaining form this duality of anti-incumbency and anti-Modi is quite high. This mathematics is something which perhaps the opinion polls may have failed to capture. So there is a high possibility that some of these regional parties would be in a strong position to call the shots post-election if there is a fractured verdict. The bottom line is that there is huge political fluidity and only May 16th, the day of the results, will reveal the final picture. So what Change we will get for our future governance we have to wait and see. Change there will be as the voter turnout hitherto has been encouraging with over eight percentage points higher than the previous elections.
The Future of Accountability
Accountability in governance is a major concern agonizing the voter, apart from corruption. Accountability and corruption are seen as two sides of the same coin. People want improved governance. They want better social services like, health, education and welfare. They want more mileage from the taxes they have paid. They want corruption eliminated. The corporate sector too is demanding stronger governance and accountability but less government. So the mood of the electorate is clearly in favour of stronger accountability so that governance improves. This is the Change people want. Whosoever comes to power would have to deliver this or face peoples’ wrath. In the past two years people have come out on the streets against corruption and have changed the politics. If the new government fails to deliver good governance people are likely to come back on the streets. The new Government must keep this in mind and deliver good governance and be accountable to its citizens.