Now to put the pieces together
By Santwana Bhattacharya
NEW DELHI - With the last batch of votes slipped into the electronic slot on
Wednesday, and all the exit polls indicating a multi-fractured verdict, New
Delhi looks like a busy marriage bureau.
The liaison men of the two national parties have been deputed to woo sundry
regional parties to their respective folds - never mind which side they fought
from - so as to bridge the deficit all of them know they will have with regard
to the simple majority of 272 in the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of parliament.
It's ironic that right after the world's largest-ever voting exercise in which
approximately 58% of the 714 million voters - the combined
population of Russia and the US - exercised their franchise in a month-long
exercise, it could well depend on the skills of a motley crowd of political
dealmakers to conjure up a government.
People in the sub-continent love to describe their polls as the "festival of
democracy", a peculiar Indianizing of a Western precept-in-action. Old,
indigenous models of elected government do exist, yet this curious blend of
gladiatorial politics and social-equalizing effects that we see now is a
decidedly modern event. But the questions are: does the model really work? Has
the system come up against a bug that it can't delete?
The seemingly unceremonious ending to the voting - with the provincial voter
often having not the foggiest about where his or her vote is ultimately headed
- has rekindled a debate on whether the system needs a little tweaking. How can
India guarantee a system in which the people and their votes are the final
arbiter, not the political middleman armed with the dubious brief of putting
together a majority any which way. (And equipped, thereafter, with the divine
right to influence policymaking.)
In the face of this subversive situation, the obvious alternative has again
come back for discussion. India's political theorists are again pondering their
reluctance to consider the system where the people get to directly choose the
person for the top job on the basis of the policy bouquet offered by the party
instead of leaving the choice on a powerful cartel or a last-minute draw of
luck. If the results, due by Saturday evening, throw up a very fluid scenario -
with conceivably half-a-dozen and more prime ministerial candidates - the
allure of the alternative would increase.
Ever since the single-party rule of the Congress, undisputedly dominated by the
Nehru family, petered away with the assassination of Indira Gandhi and her son
Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 and 1991, respectively, this has been the norm in India.
The sense that it's always "someone else" who decides. Not the voter, not even
necessarily the party. Thus, in the early 1990s, Narasimha Rao emerged as prime
minister of a minority government, on the assumption he had the approval of
Rajiv's widow Sonia Gandhi.
From 1996 onwards, rainbow coalitions of parties whose colors didn't
necessarily match came to rule the roost. Deve Gowda, an unknown leader from
the southwestern state of Karnataka, became the prime minister out of nowhere.
A "humble farmer" by his own description, his arrival is still offered as a
validation of pure democracy, the idea of India as a decentralized, federal
The truth was that the Congress, which backed his coalition from outside,
thought him to be a pliant candidate. Deve Gowda, being from so utterly beyond
the pale, was merely the man with whom powerful people had the least problems.
The minute the intended puppet acquired a life of its own, the string was cut
and he was replaced, in another draw of lots, by I K Gujral, a bearded
seminarist no voter in Varanasi or Vellore would have ever heard of.
Though a popular leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a brilliant
orator, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, too, became prime minister almost by fluke. He
became the default candidate after Lalchand Kishen Advani had to step aside
because of a legal tangle. Less of a "Hindutva" hardliner than Advani, Vajpayee
was also far more acceptable to partners in their then-new National Democratic
Alliance, many of whom had secular pretensions. As for Manmohan Singh, to use
his own words, he became a prime minister in 2004 "by accident". That was after
the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi refused to assume the high office amid high
A direct election, many argue, is a distinct improvement over this indirect
system where the people have no control over or idea about who gets to rule
them - about his or her credentials, or inclinations. The Indian prime
minister, in theory, is driven by the cabinet of ministers, the ambit of powers
circumscribed by a sense of collective responsibility, but has been found, in
the unfolding of this young democracy, to have quite a lot of power vested in
his or her hands.
The controversy ridden India-United States civilian nuclear deal, over which
the left parties parted ways with the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive
Alliance government a year ago, is a perfect case in point. It stretched the
idea of consensual decision-making quite a bit, but the personal preference of
even a mild-mannered, non-despotic figure such as Manmohan came to have right
Those in favor of the current parliamentary system, in which the number of
votes polled decides who wins the elections, insist the present fragmentation
is actually a salutary movement away from an often autocratic center. The
emergence of regional forces and caste-based parties, they say, has helped
empower hitherto electorally suppressed groups - the backward classes, the once
social untouchables and the Dalits.
This, then, is a necessary corollary: the fracturing of the polity into smaller
influence groups who have come to call the shots and can, according to their
relative weights and tactical needs of the day, determine crucial policy
directions. The flip side is, of course, that this has indeed led to the
creation of a class of powerful political brokers.
It has also made elections far more expensive - and, naturally, made the role
of money in elections less a matter of quiet necessity, more brazen and
matter-of-fact. One has to literally go through the list of 8,070 candidates
contesting this elections (of whom only 6.9% are women) with a scanner to
identify candidates who are worth less than a few million dollars. The rupee,
remember, is worth about one-fiftieth of the US currency.
A decade ago, the chief minister of a southern state reportedly had to mortgage
his own house to fight his first election; this time his declared assets
ballooned into several millions. The Election Commission has in recent years
made the declaration of assets mandatory. But this has clearly not helped
dissuade politicians from making money on the job. Most top leaders have
doubled or trebled their already bloated bank balances in the last five years,
and declared them with impunity.
The civil rights groups which have painstakingly documented this rising role of
money power in elections are yet to get the due attention of those who bother
with democratic theory. But the thought is deeply disturbing: what exactly does
it imply if a person of modest means has no real chance of winning an Indian
Now to the present drama. The punters in Mumbai who are making a fast buck on
the prevailing uncertainty and the political analysts enjoying their 15 minutes
of fame in New Delhi TV studios are both backing the ruling Congress party as
the nearest to the finishing line. But it could still be anybody's game. The
ground reports suggest the Congress is only marginally ahead of the BJP, if at
all, and either way both sides are way short of 272. Hence, the race for
cornering as many regional allies as they can.
The left-led Third Front, which has the biggest congregation of regional
parties, is under maximum stress. Two southern satraps in its camp have
indicated an open mind towards a national dispensation. In a near-farcical
scenes, the son of Deve Gowda, now convener of the Third Front alternative, was
caught sneaking into Congress president Sonia Gandhi's official residence in
New Delhi, his face covered in a handkerchief.
The stately Tamil Nadu leader J Jayalalitha, who's expected to do well,
admitted openly that she is being wooed by many suitors. But she would make up
her mind only after May 16, when the results are out. She is not telling anyone
what she's asking for in exchange for support. The price, speculators are sure,
will be the scalp of her rival M Karunanidhi and his Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam
government in the state. The state Congress is in a position to retract its
support and topple the minority government and make her the queen of Tamil Nadu
The BJP, too, is not far behind. It has deputed Gujarat chief minister Narendra
Modi and another powerbroker, S Gurumurthy, to convince her to back Advani for
prime minister. As for the leader of the left bloc, Prakash Karat, he insists
Jayalalitha is firmly clasped to its hands.
Santwana Bhattacharya is a New Delhi-based journalist who writes on
politics, parliament and elections. She is currently working on a book on
electoral reforms and the emergence of regional parties in India.