What is a vote worth?

Vote buying and electoral malpractices are not just acts of corruption, but forms of oppression where leaders try to win elections by excluding people’s social choices

Published - May 14, 2014 01:58 am IST

The Election Commission (EC), over the course of the 2014 general election, has reported a massive infusion of cash and gifts to buy votes and influence results. In the run-up to the elections, the >EC seized over two billion rupees in unaccounted money from across the country. In the world’s largest democratic exercise, what is a vote worth? When the vote is for sale, does it matter if destruction is wrought in the name of popular democracy or authoritarianism? Beyond the circus of elections, what does the vote signify? And what is the real value of suffrage?

Struggle for suffrage The 150 years long British constitutional exercise in India never introduced universal suffrage. Indians were denied the right to vote and had no say in the government for most of the British rule. Indian constitutional development, until almost the end of the British rule, was decided exclusively by the British Parliament. At the height of British constitutional generosity, a handful of Indians were elected, based on restricted franchise. Our freedom is founded on the demand for this universal suffrage. The struggle for independence embodied an unprecedented claim to citizenship, self-determination and universal rights.

The vote that is being peddled for cash today is the result of many unmarked graves, unrecorded sacrifices and a bloody history. The First World War created the momentum for self-determination and a demand for political suffrage in India. Many Indian national leaders became vocal supporters of the efforts to recruit Indians into the military, seeing this as an opportunity to establish their right to equality as the “citizens” of the Empire. Only a few months into the war, the Indian National Congress resolved ‘‘to stand by the empire at all hazards and at all costs.’’ One of its most vocal advocates was, in fact, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Similarly, Bal Gangadhar Tilak supported enrolments of Indians in the Indian Defence Force and urged the people to respond to defend “motherland and empire.” Over a million Indians served overseas, fighting for the British Empire in France, Egypt, and Mesopotamia.

The belief was that Indians would have to be made equal to ‘‘European British subjects in India,” giving Indians the mandate to govern themselves. India’s expectation after the war for greater “self-governance” was instead met with Montagu-Chelmsford reforms that fell short of fulfilling the basic demands of self-governance. Latent disaffection became widespread in 1919. The Rowlatt Bills — the immediate target of Indian protests early in 1919 — were widely seen as a betrayal of promise of self-governance. Indian politicians fought a fierce campaign against Rowlatt. There was rioting in Ahmedabad, Delhi and several districts of the Punjab. At Amritsar, a protesting crowd was ordered to disperse by Brigadier-General Dyer. When they refused, he “fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed.” The Jallianwala Bagh massacre galvanised local resentments into a popular nationalist movement. A. J. P. Taylor called the massacre a “decisive moment when Indians were alienated from British rule.”

Almost ten years after the massacre, the Simon Commission report was published, recording the effects of constitutional reform implemented by the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms in 1919. It opined that the Indians were incapable of self-governance and stated that, “Indians could not find a constitutional consensus among themselves…” The report was unanimously rejected around the country by the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. In protest, ministers of the Madras Presidency resigned. In Lahore, protests were led by Lala Lajpat Rai.

In response to the boycott, Lord Birkenhead, the Secretary of State for India, who chaired the Simon Commission, argued in the House of Lords that Indians could not produce and sustain a Constitution widely acceptable among the leaders of various Indian communities. Twenty-two years after Lord Birkenhead laid bare the challenge, the Indian Constituent Assembly drafted the Indian Constitution, with universal political franchise as the cornerstone of freedom.

Since independence, India has held 15 Lok Sabha elections and the 16th election is currently in progress. With the electoral population of 814.5 million, India’s democratic identity has become closely handcuffed to her elections. While elections as a process have been successful in India, the logical end of the process, i.e governance, remains unfulfilled. Instead, elections have produced limited, deficient, and distorted forms of democracy along with instances of authoritarian rule, run through parallel fiefdom of thugs.

A succession of regional and national political figures contest elections, tolerate some pluralism of idea and dissent, while consistently violating the most basic democratic norms. This produces a strange combination of remarkably corrupt, competitive elections and harsh repression.

Forms of oppression Vote buying and electoral malpractices are not just acts of corruption and illegality, but forms of oppression where political parties and leaders try to win elections by excluding people’s social choices. These malpractices actively restrict wider participation and representation of interests, that create conditions to sustain governments with strong authoritarian tendencies. It is disenfranchisement that has reduced people to second class citizens of their own country.

Representation alone does not approximate to democracy. The idea of democratic self-governance is incompatible with electoral farce. Electoral corruption is a direct dispossession of the right to representation and governance. The value of a vote then is the cost of freedom and liberty to govern ourselves. In these precarious times, it is also the common man’s last stand in the face of an intolerant democracy. What remains to be seen is whether the great achievement of self-governance can survive the urge for authoritarian impulse and systemic corruption. Is the ballot stronger than the bribe?

(Suchitra Vijayan is a political analyst.)

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