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The duty to vote

By P. P. Rao

Shunning the ballot box does not solve the problem. Democracy needs constant involvement of, and monitoring by, the people.

ELECTIONS HAVE been announced to five States Assemblies — Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. The voters are in a dilemma once again: Whom to vote for and what to vote for?

There are voters of all hues. Those who know the value of democracy would like to elect honest and competent representatives. They want a clean and an efficient government, which can maintain law and order, promote communal harmony, take care of the basic needs and assiduously work for the progress of the country. The scenario of crisis-crossed coalitions and power politics is disheartening. All recognised political parties have obtained election symbols swearing allegiance to the Constitution and to the principles of socialism, secularism and democracy mostly under statutory compulsion. But quite a few of them profess one thing and do another. All of them claim to be secular but, barring a few, pursue a communal or caste agenda. While in power, the style of functioning and priorities of the parties are similar, guided by expediency and not ideology. Horse-trading, mass defections and jumbo Cabinets at public expense are the order of the day. Apart from communal and caste factors, money power and muscle power dominate public life and elections. No party is in a position to tackle corruption, the growing crime rate, terrorism and unemployment, or provide necessities of life such as water, food and electricity to the people.

Of late, conflict of interest is noticeable between the political parties and the people whom they profess to serve. This came to light when the Supreme Court declared the voters' right to know the background of their candidates. The political parties for a while forgot that they are the instrumentalities of the people for working democracy, and not their masters. When the dividing lines of political parties are not clearly drawn on the basis of ideology it is indeed difficult to vote for any single party, unmindful of other factors.

There are voters who habitually support a particular party. Most of them remain loyal to it. There are also voters who think it is wise to join hands with a political party that is likely to form the Government. They shut their eyes to the corrupt practices of the party. There are some who accept inducements offered on the eve of election and curse their fate later. A sizeable percentage of voters is so disillusioned that it does not vote at all.

The leaders who had made enormous sacrifices during the struggle for freedom were fully aware of the pitfalls of democracy. They knew that if the elected were not capable and lacked character and integrity, they would not be able to work the Constitution. In the words of Nani Palkivala: "If democracy is to survive in India, we must go all out to grant the highest recognition to ability, knowledge and integrity."

Today, politicians and criminals are sharing power in different parts of the country. There are still a few well-meaning politicians on the scene who, if given a chance, would like to serve the people honestly. But they cannot swim against the current and feel helpless. The quality of democracy depends on the ability of the voters to elect proper representatives and the fitness of those elected to govern.

What should the conscientious voters do in this distressing scenario? Shunning the ballot box does not solve the problem. The former President, R. Venkataraman, has suggested that voting in elections should be made compulsory. This is difficult to implement. The voters' attitude should be positive. Democracy needs constant involvement of, and monitoring by, the people. Interaction with fellow voters in the neighbourhood, colleagues at the place of work, relatives, friends and acquaintances as to whom to vote for will help.

To secure the nomination of clean and capable candidates by political parties is the most difficult problem today. It may be possible to some extent if the voters, individually and collectively, with the help of like-minded NGOs and the media, not only expose the antecedents of undesirable candidates strutting on the political stage with facts and figures but also identify suitable candidates in every constituency and try to prevail upon the parties not to field them.

The task is formidable but worth an attempt. The candidate who appears honest, public spirited and well equipped to represent the constituency deserves consideration. If there is more than one such candidate, the one who belongs to a party with acceptable ideology deserves support. Broad ideological stands are still discernible to a limited extent such as commitment to secularism and socialism.

Simply casting the vote once in five years is not enough. Every voter should take active interest in making democracy a success. The first step after the election should be to mobilise public opinion so as to compel the party or parties in power to plug the loopholes in the electoral system and implement the constitutional mandate of building a welfare state. Except under pressure of public opinion, political parties would be reluctant to provide a clean, efficient and people-oriented system of governance.

The voters should assert themselves, instead of remaining passive and powerless to elect proper candidates. For this, election time is best.

(The writer is a Senior Advocate in the Supreme Court.)

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