By Inder Jit
Millions of our voters exercised their franchise yesterday in a majority of the States and Union Territories. Millions more will hopefully cast their votes in the remaining states and Union Territories on Thursday and in Meghalaya and Nagaland on Friday. What the ballot boxes have in store for the country and for the aspirants to Parliament and power will be known only by late Saturday or Sunday. One thing alone is clear in the meanwhile. India’s voters have been less than enthusiastic about the poll. The last two Lok Sabha elections were marked by a relatively low turn-out. An average of only about 52 per cent of the voters cast their votes. As a percentage of India’s population, only about 25 per cent expressed their preference for one party or another. Importantly, the Janata Party in 1977 and Mrs. Gandhi and her Congress-I in 1980 ruled this country on a mandate of merely 12 to 13 per cent of the population! It is doubtful if the poll analysis this time will be substantially different. But it will once again raise some pertinent questions.
Why this apathy? Why do most voters not exercise the basic right which democracy gives them —— a right which today people yearn for in neighbouring Pakistan and in scores of dictatorships all over the world. The answer is not far to seek. Most people today are sick of politics and politicians, barring some honourable exceptions. They feel they have had enough of both and take the view: “To hell with the whole jing, bang lot.” Inwardly, they wish there was a clean and credible alternative to the present set of political parties. However, there is none. In the circumstances, they prefer to stay at home. But in doing so they overlook their own contribution to the disgusting state of affairs at present. Politics and public life are rotten today because good, public spirited people have largely shunned public life. Even those who have had a good innings and are back in the pavilion seldom think of giving back to the country a little of what the country has given them. “Politics is dirty”, they say and add: “There is no place for good honest people.”
Politics is undoubtedly dirty, very dirty. Few decent persons would care to soil their hands in it, notwithstanding the fact that no other business in recent years has held out better prospects of making millions in a short time. Not a few with little money yesterday drive around in posh imported cars today. But we must face the fact that politics is certain to become dirties so long as good persons do not actively participate in national affairs. Time was when following independence Nehru inducted men of acknowledged ability into the Congress with a view to improving the quality of public life. Indira Gandhi, too, tried to do likewise in 1971. But things have greatly changed during the past decade and more. The professional politician has taken over and some 10000 men and women comprising India’s new feudal lords and today playing ducks and drakes with its life. Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, too, has inducted a few persons into the Congress-I. Sadly, however, the choice has been dictated only by poll considerations and largely limited to film stars.
Can something be done by the ordinary citizens to mend matters and, what is more, to prevent India from going over the brink? (Make no mistake, disenchantment with democracy has greatly grown over the years —— and is growing.) Several public spirited people have not in groups of various sizes over the past few months. Interestingly, not a few veterans in selfless public work have come to the conclusion that mere non-power seeking groups and organizations will take the country nowhere. In fact, one veteran Mr. Sewak Ram, who has put in more than 60 years in public service and is Chairman of the Delhi Branch of the Servants of People Society, founded by Lala Lajpat Rai in 1921, recalls what the Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, told them in New Delhi soon after independence. “You can go on churning water. But it will not yield any butter. Free India needs selfless men and women in public life and politics. They alone will be able to give India a good, clean government.” Says Mr. Sewak Ram: “I wish we had listened to him then….”
Mr. Sewak Ram and some of his close friends have now decided that what India needs today is a new political party. The reader may be tempted to exclaim: “Not another, please. We want only two or three parties, not more.” But I should hasten to add that the new party proposed by him and those like-minded would be a party of an altogether “new breed” — a genuine political party intended to blaze a new trail in clean and principled democratic functioning with duly audited accounts. In fact, Mr. Sewak Ram has even written letters to leading newspapers in Delhi and elsewhere on the subject. The letter, which deserves to be reproduced in full, reads: “As an humble worker in the service of this country for over 60 years, I have witnessed, with agony, the gradual all round deterioration which has brought us to the present sad state. My purpose in writing this letter is not to dwell on our condition, with which we are all familiar, but to share with my countrymen a response which could be effective.
“Over the years, we have allowed ourselves to be misled into delegating all initiative and authority, with the result that a great deal of power is now concentrated at the Centre. This power has been misused for narrow interests by creating an illusion of progress”. In naked truth, a cruel deception was played on helpless people, and it is still continuing. The masses are already reeling under its impact. The widespread discontent and disillusionment can be turned into a clear awareness of the mirage and then harnessed into a massive assertion for an alternative. I submit that this process will take a quicker and more realistic shape if those who kindle, nurture and strengthen the awareness simultaneously offer to remedy the situation if they receive the necessary backing to gain political power. This clearly indicates a political party of a new breed. As a young man of 83 years, I am passionate about a process of regeneratation being set into motion. This letter is a way of reaching unknown colleagues and supporters with an earnest appeal to join hands in this creative-constructive endeavour.
Newspaper readers from various parts of our country have come forward with an encouraging response to Mr. Sewak Ram’s appeal from South Delhi’s Lajpat Bhavan, the scene in recent weeks of dedicated relief work by the Nagrik Ekta Manch, founded overnight to deal with the riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination. But there is much that the citizens can still do pending the formation of the new political party. Some ideas on the subjects were happily put forward the other day by Mr. S.L. Shakdhar, former Chief Election Commissioner and, importantly, also formerly Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha. The occasion was an All India Voters’ Convention and Mr. Shakdhar dealt in his speech with two subjects: Rights and Duties of Voters’ Council and Electoral Reforms. Unfortunately, the movement for Voters Councils has not grown as it should have. The idea was first mooted in September 1979 at a meeting held at the Gandhi Peace Foundation and attended by some fifty persons committed to democracy. The group included representatives of citizens for Democracy, Lok Sewak Sangh, Sarva Sewa Sangh, the National Peoples’ Committee and some independents. Mercifully, however, the concept of a Voters Council survives.
Mr. Shakdhar, candidly told the Convention: “Voters have a right to vote, a valuable right. Every eligible person should avail of this right. It is cowardice not to vote, which indirectly helps unscrupulous people to get elected on grounds of caste, muscle or money power. Incompetent legislators will not be able to fulfill the aspiration of the people and democracy itself may be in trouble. Everybody should, therefore, participate in the election because that ultimately leads to the formation of Parliament and government. In some countries like Australia, voting is compulsory. In India, the Voters’ Council can help in educating people how necessary it is to vote. The Voters’ Council can also help in enforcing the code of conduct devised by the Election Commission. Though it has no legal sanction, the code has the acceptance of political parties and conventions are more important than the provisions of a statute. The Voters’ Council can see to it that this code is followed meticulously and any breaches are brought to the notice of the Election Commission — and the people.”
That, however, is only one aspect of the role of the Voters’ Council. At present, according to Mr. Shakdhar, elected representatives do not report back to their constituents. “Here the Voters’ Council can play a vital role in bringing MPs of all parties to a public platform and demand from them what they have achieved or done for their constituencies… as you know, whatever may be the outcome of elections, there is no guarantee that a member will be faithful to the symbol on which he is elected… we have witnessed unprincipled defections…. Voters’ Council can render yeomen service in the preservation of our democracy, which was devised by our leaders and great minds who gave us a beautiful Constitution. However, elections are only a means to an end. The aim of elections is to produce Governments which are wise, dynamic and forward looking, and to constitute legislatures which not only support Governments for their national policies but also bring them to book for their inefficiency, negligence and mismanagement.”
A formidable Opposition could have done much in this direction. But India has regretfully not been blessed with one since independence. Can something be done in the circumstances? The answer is a positive yes. Winston Churchill, the great democrat and parliamentarian, once remarked that a Member of Parliament should live upto three Cs — love for his country, spirit of service for his constituency and respect for his conscience. He was clear that a member required only these three attributes. In his opinion, the member was under no obligation to further the interests of his party. He needed to be loyal only to his country and constituency in consonance with his conscience. Voters’ Councils should act as watchdogs, monitoring bodies and hold their respective members accountable for their functioning in Government and Parliament. In sum, the role of the voter does not end with the casting of the ballot and in deciding who is to rule his for the next five years. It goes well beyond the poll both in his own interest and that of the country.— INFA
By Inder Jit