Elections are not a referendum

January 12, 2017 12:00 am | Updated 03:36 am IST

The reduction of Assembly elections to a referendum diminishes the political competence of voters to decide what sort of a government they wish to be ruled by

A flurry of speculation erupted the very moment the Election Commission announced Assembly elections in five States: Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Manipur, Goa and Uttarakhand. Will the electoral outcome reflect confidence or the lack thereof in State governments and/or the viability of opposition politics? Or can election results, it is suggested, be read as a referendum on demonetisation? A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win, goes the narrative, will settle once and for all the acrimonious debate that exploded in the wake of November 8, 2016.

Civic engagement

Referendums are, of course, a ready and a convenient method of resolving incompatible opinions. Once citizens “speak” on an issue that has been “referred” to them, the debate is considered closed. Elections are, however, a moment, albeit a significant one, in an ongoing process of civic engagement. The proposal that State Assembly elections can be reduced to a referendum on whether the Prime Minister was right or wrong evokes discomfort. There is, as we shall see, a perceptible difference between elections and a referendum.

Moreover, the assumption that a referendum will validate a policy that has already been implemented is conservative to a fault. The United Kingdom held a referendum last year on whether citizens wish to leave or stay in the European Union. The measure enabled citizens to influence subsequent policies of the government. They exercised political choice. Ex-post facto referendums are in this sense meaningless.

If the BJP does not win in politically significant States, the policy of demonetisation will hardly be rolled back. And the Central government will not even consider resignation. Nor do we expect the government headed by Narendra Modi to do so. That would infringe on the fundamentals of federalism. But if the BJP wins in these States, BJP president Amit Shah suggests the electoral outcome will further bolster the standing of the Prime Minister.

Impact of demonetisation

This approach to a referendum is manipulative and cynical. Can citizens arrive at reasoned and informed decisions on a policy announced three months ago? Reputed economists tell us that the impact of demonetisation will be known after one or, possibly, two years. What is the point of representing election results, as and when they come, as a referendum on policy decisions?

Moreover, the reduction of State Assembly elections to a referendum diminishes the political competence of voters to decide what sort of a government they wish to be ruled by. Elections, unlike referendums, are not an isolated instance. They represent a decisive moment in long-term civic engagement with structures, institutions, and holders of power. Voters have to decide whether the government has improved the conditions in which they eke out a livelihood, or worsened them. Elections give the man opportunity to draw upon the famous dictum issued by the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and declare, “off with their heads.” The purely metaphorical act of regicide delivers the ultimate judgment on the capacity or incapacity of governments.

Role of civil society

If there is controversy between the prince and his subjects, wrote the quintessential liberal political theorist John Locke in his 1690 Second Treatise of Government , and if the issue is of consequence, the proper umpire is the political community. This is what democracy means. The question is not whether the citizen has the right to engage with and judge an elected government, the question is how she arrives at informed and reflective decisions on what should be done. This is an important issue, for if a citizen has the right to publicly debate the limits and the possibilities of power, she also has an obligation: that of acquiring knowledge on crucial dimensions of collective life. There is nothing more destructive for democracy than uninformed and quick decisions on issue X or Y. All we will do is legitimise populist leaders and arbitrary decisions.

The site for the acquisition of political wisdom and competence is civil society, the sphere of associational life. In this space, civil society organisations inspire and sustain debates on the public good. A non-partisan and non-hysterical media has a crucial role to play in the making of enlightened public opinion. Social audits and report cards issued by civil society organisations, which keep anxious watch on acts of omission and commission by the government, are of equal import.

The identification of crucial issues, analyses and recommendations by committed activists contribute greatly to the making of political judgment. Votes cast for “this” or “that” candidate, in sum, reflect cumulative processes of civic engagement. The vote should not be treated as of little consequence, or as a way of legitimising power. The way a society votes echoes the way a society thinks, the issues it identifies, who it thinks is capable of resolving them, and its aspirations.

Consider that in these elections, citizens of a conflict-ridden Manipur will decide whether the existing government, which sparked off another round of discontent by redrawing boundaries, deserves another term. Or whether a plural and ethnically diverse society wants to be ruled by an ultranationalist BJP that scorns diversity. Or if an alternative world view forged in the heat of resistance by Irom Sharmila should be given a chance.

In Punjab

The issues at stake in Punjab are equally momentous. The once rich agrarian State is trapped between two non-performing parties interested more in the privileges and profits of office than in providing the preconditions of a good life. Now that there is a third party competing for power, the Aam Aadmi Party, voters might want to consider whether they want more of the same, or whether they should give “outsiders” a chance.

Under governments formed by the two national parties, Uttarakhand has witnessed little but environmental destruction, political instability and corruption. There is no third party that can guide politics into a different stream. Is it not time for the formation of a regional political party which is sensitive to the contradiction between a resource-rich State and poverty among the hill people? The region has thrown up one of the most innovative environmental movements in history. This is the precise time for the generation of innovative forms of politics that respect the environment, give citizens their due and disown corruption that has depleted resources and robbed people.

In an India that has turned extremely conservative and rabidly intolerant, Goa has always stood out as a society that celebrates and thrives on cosmopolitanism. The spirit of tolerance of other ways of life is under threat today. Extreme right-wing parties compete to take over, and hammer a vibrant society into compliance. Elections provide a chance for voters to exert their autonomy from barren politics that promise nothing but hate.

U.P. held hostage

Uttar Pradesh, the cynosure of electoral hopes, is a State that yearns for a responsive and responsible government. But the people are held hostage by political parties that specialise in the creation and reproduction of caste and religious divisions. U.P. occupies the centre of political imaginations, but its citizens continue to be deprived of basic resources that make life worth living. What have identity politics given to the people of the State except symbolism? It is time that they critically engage with modes of politics that have divided rather than united them.

Assembly elections in five States provide opportunities for serious engagement with the parameters and possibilities of power. In each case, the electorate is confronted with hard choices. Does the electorate vote for more of the same, or for different styles of politics that have made their appearance in some of these States? The decision demands prior reflection and debate. Let us not diminish this exercise by conceiving of election results as a referendum on the popularity of the Prime Minister. Let us not reduce the significance of hard choices the electorate has to make by conflating elections with a referendum. Elections are a mode of civic engagement, this proposition is of value.

Neera Chandhoke is a former Professor of Political Science, Delhi University.

The question is not whether a citizen has the right to engage with and judge a government. It is on how she arrives at informed decisions on what should be done

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