A Chandigarh window on Indian democracy - Hindustan Times
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A Chandigarh window on Indian democracy

Feb 08, 2024 10:00 PM IST

The mayoral polls hold a mirror to debasement of politics characterised by falling ethical standards and an ends-justify-means amoral credo

It has taken a relatively insignificant election for Chandigarh’s mayor to expose the frailties of India’s electoral democracy. A presiding officer caught on camera allegedly “defacing” ballot papers is reason enough for an incensed Supreme Court (SC) to call for his prosecution and term his actions a “mockery” and “murder” of democracy. But beyond the justified outrage, here is the troubling question: If a mayoral election can lead to prima facie irregularities, what might happen when the stakes are much higher?

BJP mayoral candidate Manoj Sonkar won the Chandigarh mayoral elections. (HT photo) PREMIUM
BJP mayoral candidate Manoj Sonkar won the Chandigarh mayoral elections. (HT photo)

In a sense, Chandigarh holds a mirror to the utter debasement of politics characterised by falling ethical standards, frenzied competition, and an “ends matter more than means” amoral political credo. The chronology is disconcerting. An election scheduled for January 18 is postponed at the last moment because the presiding officer suddenly falls ill and is hospitalised. When court intervention forces an early poll, the election is conducted in a manner that leaves ample room for suspicion: Eight votes are mysteriously invalidated, all from the Opposition Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)-Congress alliance, polling agents aren’t allowed to see the invalidated ballots and in the mayhem that follows, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate is unilaterally proclaimed as the new mayor. That the presiding officer, Anil Masih, is a member of BJP’s minority morcha makes his role even more suspect.

Nor can this Chandigarh election be wished away as just another case of unholy localised machinations. The election took place against the backdrop of AAP and the Congress coming together as part of a potentially wider nationwide Opposition INDIA bloc. It was, to that extent, the first electoral test for an embryonic grouping to show that alliance arithmetic, even if built on a temporary relationship of convenience, can score over a dominant force. For the BJP, on the other hand, it was an opportunity to further dent dwindling Opposition morale ahead of the general elections.

Which is why the signals from Chandigarh are ominous: If even when the Opposition is able to muster greater numbers — the AAP-Congress had the support of 20 councillors to the BJP’s 16 — the election is allegedly “stolen”, then what is the guarantee that this will not happen in electoral battles in the future? More so because the presiding officer’s seemingly perfidious behaviour fits in with a pattern where constitutional functionaries and democratic institutions find themselves increasingly under the scanner. The role of governors — Jharkhand being the latest example — is being viewed through the lens of their extreme partisanship. The law enforcement machinery — be it the Enforcement Directorate or CBI — stands accused of having become the sword arm of the ruling establishment. And even the neutrality of the Election Commission of India is now being called into question.

The familiar argument is to pitch the actions as part of a broader trend of misuse of executive power that didn’t begin in 2014 but has been intrinsic to power politics in the country. Didn’t Indira Gandhi, after all, declare the Emergency, arrest her political rivals and invoke Article 356 to impose President’s Rule a record 50 times? Didn’t Rajiv Gandhi bring in a defamation bill to curb press freedom? Didn’t PV Narasimha Rao use a controversial “hawala” investigation to encircle his opponents within and outside the Congress? Haven’t the Opposition-ruled governments in West Bengal — be it the Left Front or Trinamool Congress — been guilty of rigging panchayat polls? Not to forget the Modi government’s favourite whipping boy, Jawaharlal Nehru, who for all his democratic fervour, curtailed the freedom of speech through the first amendment and dismissed a democratically elected CPI government in Kerala.

But a whataboutery line of reasoning is a lame excuse to defend the indefensible. After all, when the Modi government came to power in 2014, it was with the assurance of ushering in “achhe din”, while insisting that the BJP was a party with a difference that would break away from the Congress style of functioning. Instead, the BJP in the last decade has used a mix of fear and allurements to bring down at least four elected Opposition governments and “managed” majorities in two others. The fear factor has seen a hyperactive Enforcement Directorate investigating Opposition leaders but missing in action in BJP-ruled states or ignoring those politicians who switched allegiance to the BJP.

The allurements on offer are even more startling and go beyond just ministerial perks. A recent newspaper report based on official records reveals that Mumbai’s civic body, for which elections have not been held for two years now, gave 500 crores for upgradation projects only to ruling BJP-Shiv Sena MLAs, none at all to the Opposition. When taxpayers’ monies are so brazenly and selectively distributed for political benefit, then how does one ensure even a semblance of a level-playing field?

It is this nagging concern over a rigged system that demands urgent reforms to ensure a free, fair, and importantly, transparent democratic process. The unabashed use of money power has already soiled elections. The opaque electoral bonds — heavily weighted in favour of the ruling dispensation — have made contests distinctly uneven. The mode of appointment of election commissioners is problematic. Electronic Voting Machines are under scrutiny although evidence of manipulation is unproven. A credible election needs greater vigilance and where necessary, judicial oversight.

While the SC reads out the riot act and calls for the prosecution of the Chandigarh mayoral presiding officer, here is a final tantalising question. Does anyone seriously believe that an officer who is also a minor party functionary would act on his own? And if he wasn’t, then who should really be held accountable?

Post-script: This week, Pakistan goes to the polls in what is being seen as a “selection” and not an election. Pakistan’s democratic collapse is because a dictatorial army systematically destroyed all institutional checks and balances within the system. By contrast, Indian democracy is still robust but as Chandigarh has shown, election “match-fixing” is a subcontinental bug. Never take anything for granted.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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