The Great Indian Poll Circus

Indian politics, a grand theatre, hosts its quintennial electoral extravaganza—a diverse cast, campaign theatrics, and policy debates form the democratic spectacle. The Indian Poll Circus: democracy’s vibrant showcase, merging rhetoric, policy, and action
Dr Mohan Kanda
  • Political leaders embraced “simple living, high thinking.” Ex-PM Manmohan Singh renewed his license at a Delhi transport office
  • Indian government’s issuance of Electoral Bonds, amid its commitment to fair play for all parties, was regressive
  • BJP invites parties from 25 countries to observe its campaign and election strategies firsthand, showcasing its approach
  • T N Seshan, Chief Election Commissioner from 1990 to 1996, fearlessly transformed India’s electoral process with determination

I recall many great circuses of yesteryear, such as the Gemini Circus and the Great Bombay Circus, with their rope walkers, bedecked dancing elephants; the ringmaster introducing act, such as lions jumping through flaming hoops of fire the clowns with their weirdly made up faces, strange costumes and tricks. Also the amazing balance, grace and coordination of the trapeze artists, and the safety nets for their protection.

The political equivalents, of the actors as well as their antics, will all be on show; loud mouths with sharp tongues indulging in a free-for-all slugfest, nimble feet, strong elbows, and deep pockets. Instead of going back home for dinner, after the completion of a show of a Circus, as in the past, however, we will, for another five years, need to endure a pathetic performance by our leaders. Free entertainment, if you will, but sans pleasure!

FROM REBELS TO FOLLOWERS

Political leaders are permitted to contest from more than one constituency in a single election. A senior and highly respected leader from Andhra Pradesh once did so, contesting from both a Lok Sabha constituency and a State Assembly constituency. He won both elections and faced the decision of choosing between the two. My father, an advocate by profession and a retired High Court Judge, known for his devastating sense of humour, quipped that the leader would probably offer two of his fingers, each representing one of the constituencies, to a friend, asking him to pick one, and would abide by the friend’s choice.

Any sweeping judgement of the mettle or future promise of the political leaders currently in the fray would be harsh, as would be describing their calling, politics, as “the last resort for the scoundrel,” as George Bernard Shaw famously remarked. Likewise, describing them, as Mark Antony did in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, as “honourable men” would also be an exaggeration.

Although the politics and politicians of our country may leave much to be desired, the concept of democratic governance has certainly matured. The multitude of political parties, with their various persuasions and beliefs, add valuable diversity to the rich tapestry of our democracy, rather than being an undesirable development. Many have substantial followings and, come election time, the power and ability to alter the country’s destiny. I assert this with conviction and confidence as someone who has worked closely with many of them. They include stalwarts such as Balram Jakhar of the Congress (I), M Venkaiah Naidu of the BJP, Chaturanan Mishra of the CPI, Venkateswarlu of the TDP, S Jaipal Reddy of the Janata Party, and Ajit Singh of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, not to mention the legendary NTR, in whose office I served when he was the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh.

Elections at the lowest rungs of the political levels are the most bitterly contested, the issues that figure in campaigns for a Parliamentary constituency or an Assembly constituency involve matters of public interest

Some were lazy, others hard-working; some were methodical, others sloppy. Many were straightforward, and some not quite; some were meticulously honest, others with doubtful integrity. Some firm and resolute, others dithering and indecisive. Some were habitually rebellious, while others were docile and obedient. Those with inborn leadership qualities were rare, while the majority were content playing ‘follow the leader’. I learned many lessons from these close and cordial relationships.

ELECTIONS AND BEYOND

After my training at the National Academy of Administration, I was posted as an Assistant Collector (under training) in Krishna district, Andhra Pradesh, my parent cadre. As a greenhorn, I had to conduct an election for the Gram Panchayats and the office of the President of the Panchayat Samiti (PPS), the latter being the second tier of the three-tier district Panchayati Raj system, now called a Mandal. The elections at the primary level, namely the Gram Panchayats, had gone off peacefully. On the appointed day, for the election to the office of the PPS, I, as the Block Development Officer, and the Returning Officer for that election, watched, with disbelief and amazement, as vehicle after vehicle arrived, carrying the Sarpanches who were the voters. They were all being brought back, I was told later, from what was known as a ‘camp’, having been stashed away in a posh hotel, somewhere in Kashmir, immune from overtures from the opposing party! Baptism, by fire, for me in the electoral process!
Elections at the lowest rungs of the political levels are the most bitterly contested, the issues that figure in campaigns for a Parliamentary constituency or an Assembly constituency involve matters of public interest. Those for Panchayati Raj institutions at the district, block and village level, however, relate to caste, community, and gender, and score over merit and performance. That, certainly, was so in the case of elections to cooperative societies, held in 1986, when I was the Registrar of Cooperative Societies of Andhra Pradesh state. Cooperatives, technically speaking, are autonomous private bodies, free from political interference and bureaucratic control. Agriculture credit cooperatives had, over time, diversified into other areas, such as consumer activities, storage, processing and marketing of agricultural produce, and required credit support, which necessitated the government, or its agencies, standing guarantee to enable financial institutions to step in. Help gradually led to guidance, which resulted in superintendence, direction and control. Institutions, originally meant for mutual economic benefit, became willing handmaidens of the departments of government.

The stakes were high, and the elections that, under ordinary circumstances, should have been conducted quietly by local authorities within the available resources became an elaborate exercise conducted at the state level. The arrangements needed were no less than those typically required for General Elections to Parliament and the State Assemblies. Fortunately, several circumstances proved favourable. First, my advantage of experience at the sub-divisional and district levels kicked in. Second, my good relations with other related government departments, such as revenue and police, came in handy. As a result, a potentially explosive situation passed off peacefully, with only occasional flare-ups here and there.

TRIUMPHS AND WIT

Two elections which I contested deserve mention in this context. In 1990, I ran for the post of Vice President of the Hyderabad Cricket Association while serving as Secretary in the office of Chief Minister Janardan Reddy. I had, of course, obtained prior approval from the government, as it was a contested election, not a unanimous one. When I mentioned it to Janardan Reddy, his cryptic response was, “I only hope you will win!” Fortunately, I did precisely that, much to the Chief Minister’s relief.
On another occasion, I was elected unopposed as Chairman of the Officers’ Club while undergoing training at the National Academy of Administration. I had support and help from some of the Officer Trainees who had previously served in the Armed Forces, especially S K Duggal, now happily retired and enjoying golf in Surat, Gujarat. Without his encouragement and firm guidance, I would certainly have bungled the opportunity given to me by luck.

The institution of Observers, incidentally, was Seshan’s idea. Conceived originally as a measure of ensuring independent and external observation of the electoral process, it had over time grown in strength and become a formidable weapon of guidance and advice, as well as a medium through which the whip could be cracked in times of necessity

Venkaiah Naidu, formerly the Vice President, is renowned for his witty one-liners. I enjoyed many of them during my association with him. However, the one that really stands out is his description of the requirements for arranging public meetings for political leaders: “bottle, batta, and biryani!”—a characteristically succinct and earthy summary.

One wonders whether the India (that, of course, is Bharat!) of today, is the same in which, in the days of the freedom movement, people waited for hours together to hear great orators such as Subhas Chandra Bose and Bipin Chandra Pal. As Mark Antony said in the speech we referred to earlier, ‘O, what a fall there was, my countrymen!’ There are certainly many honest and sincere political leaders in the country today, patriotic and public-spirited too. Yet, one cannot help but wonder if the spirit that inspired the lyrics of the unforgettable poem ‘Desamunu preminchumanna..…’ by the legendary Telugu poet Gurajada Apparao, still lives in their hearts. Gurajada’s poem was a clarion call, a rousing exhortation to his countrymen to cultivate a lasting love for the country and its people—a spirit that seems conspicuously absent in the majority of politicians today.

VIRTUE OF HUMILITY

Time was when political leaders and statesmen believed in “simple living and high thinking.” Dr Manmohan Singh, while still the Prime Minister of the country, once went to a transport office in Delhi to get his driving licence renewed. Olof Palme, Prime Minister of Sweden, was walking back home with his wife after having watched a movie when he was shot dead by a terrorist. Mahatma Gandhi always travelled in trains only by third class, as he wished to experience the same discomfort as the common man did. How much safer and cheaper it would have been for Dr Manmohan Singh to have gotten his renewal done at home! And how much Sweden would have benefited if only its Prime Minister had had the good sense to accept personal security! The elaborate arrangements that were called for to enable Gandhiji to travel third class are all points worth noting in this context. The flip side, so to speak.
Dr Y Venugopal Reddy (Venu to his close friends), who needs no introduction, recalls how, in the 1960s, as a postgraduate student at Osmania University, he had gone to call on D. Sanjeevaiah, the then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. Venu found Sanjeevaiah impatiently pacing up and down the corridor and inquired what the problem was. Upon Sanjeevaiah telling him that he was waiting for his driver and was worried that he might reach the Assembly late, as the Question Hour was slated to start shortly, Venu drove the Chief Minister in his own car to the Assembly!

During the framing of the Constitution of India, the recognition of the unequal distribution of wealth, power, and political influence prompted the necessity to allocate specific representation in key constitutional institutions like Parliament and State Legislatures

I cannot help contrasting the simplicity that characterised the personality of the political leaders of yesteryear with the pomp and show that the politicians of today seem to revel in. The size of the security detail has become a status symbol for them. And the callous indifference they show to the inconvenience caused to the public by the stoppage of traffic when VIP convoys pass by is really unpardonable. ‘High living and simple thinking’ would appear to be the motto they have decided to follow! People who, only the other day, were rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi, suddenly find themselves part of the ruling elite, living in plush surroundings, totally isolated from those who put them there in the first place. Elected democratically, but no longer representing a system that is ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people,’ to quote Abraham Lincoln. One can only feel pity, if not disgust, for these revolting wannabes. In a way, ignorance is bliss for them because, not knowing what the great freedom fighters of yesteryear fought for, they need to feel no guilt at not being able to emulate them.

CLAIMS AND COUNTERCLAIMS

As one surveys the pre-election scene in the country today and listens to the claims made by leaders of the various parties in the fray, the impression created is one of being surrounded by saints, driven by the purest of intentions and fiercest patriotism.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the election as a ‘confrontation between stability and instability’, with the BJP and the NDA looking at ‘tough and big decisions’ for the country. He said the opposition alliance, I.N.D.I.A., believes in “Jahan bhi satta pao, khoob malai khao”. While campaigning recently in Tamil Nadu, he also accused the opposition parties of indulging in politics of hate and separatism.
Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Congress (I) party and the leading partner in the I.N.D.I.A. alliance, recently reminded the public of who won the election campaign in 2004, despite the BJP-led NDA’s aggressive ‘India Shining’ campaign. He stated that the forthcoming election is a ‘rigged and unfair’ match and urged the country’s citizens to save democracy.

I.N.D.I.A. never seems to tire of raking up the controversy surrounding the authenticity of the PM’s educational credentials, while the BJP-led NDA, in turn, repeatedly reminds the people about how Rahul’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi, had got the President of India to sign a proclamation imposing an emergency in the country, merely to survive in office.

INFLUENCE OF MONEY

That money plays a pivotal role in elections has never been in dispute. Even in the days of the freedom movement, patriotic and visionary industrialists, such as Sir Dorabji Tata, Purushottam Das Thakur, Jamnalal Bajaj, and Ghanshyam Das Birla, provided generous financial support which, however, was transparent and meant for a cause, not for the furtherance of the interests of political parties.

Be that as it may, the business of anticipating the voters’ intentions in India has always been tricky, if not impossible. While, on some occasions, voting has followed expected patterns, it has in many other cases, proved predictions wrong

The issuance of Electoral Bonds, by the government of India, in the context of its professed commitment to ensuring a level playing ground for all political parties was a retrograde step. Regrettably, the response of the Election Commission (EC), to the task entrusted to it by the Supreme Court in that regard, did little to Infuse confidence about the EC’s commitment to the cause of conducting free, fair, and impartial elections. The attempt made to use senior government functionaries, to publicise the achievements of the government during the period the present party was in power, also tarnished the fair image of central government, as it was a task which normally ought to have been performed by the public relations wing of the ruling alliance. The unfortunate attacks on media personnel, which attracted international denunciation, only made the situation worse.

GLOBAL SPOTLIGHT ON ELECTORAL INTEGRITY

The controversy surrounding the use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) has added fuel to the fire. Eminent people have expressed reservations about the technology that has gone into the manufacture of the machines and the procedure adopted in using them. The manufacture, and servicing, of the machines, are handled by the Electronics Corporation of India, and Bharat Electronics, both public sector undertakings with a majority of the members on their boards being nominees of the central government. Fears have been expressed that the EC’s constitutional responsibility of conducting elections may pass into the hands of those organisations.

Following Jayaprakash Narayan’s anti-corruption movement in 1977, the entire country, gripped by a wave of resentment against the ruling Congress (I) party, voted the Janata Party-led alliance to power at the centre. But the people of Andhra Pradesh state, alone, stubbornly supported the Congress (I) and helped it retain the reins of power

Time was when eminent and successful practitioners of law, such as Rajagopalachari, Lala Lajpat Rai, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Motilal Nehru, C R Das and Sardar Patel, entered politics. They did that after first having made a name for themselves providing, adequately, for the needs of their families and friends. Their entry, in other words, was a way of giving back to the country what it had given them. A similar spirit must surely have inspired President John F Kennedy of the USA, years later, when he said “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Nowadays, however, politics has become a business, involving investments with the promise of attractive returns. Little wonder, then, that the credentials of the politicians of today offer little to write home about.
The whole world will watch, with great interest, the way the electoral scenario unfolds in the next few weeks. The manner in which regular and impartial elections have been conducted in India has attracted fulsome praise, from countries, and institutions, across the world. No mean task, given the size of the country and the diversity in terms of geographical, and demographic features, culture, language, religion, creed, and race. That a large section of the country’s population continues to be plagued by poverty, illiteracy and lack of access to basic human requirements, only makes the situation that more challenging.

The ruling BJP has extended invitations to political parties from 25 countries to observe, at first hand, its campaign and election management strategies. An unprecedented and bold step, indeed, that promises, once and for all, to put paid to all doubts about the Indian system of conduct of elections.

ELECTORAL PIONEERS

The fearless, dynamic and determined approach of the legendary T N Seshan, Chief Election Commissioner from 1990 to 1996, brought in a sea change in the electoral process in the country. And Seshan had managed that, with little addition to the resources of the EC, either in terms of men, material or statutory authority. J M Lyngdoh, one of Seshan’s successors-in-office, continued where Seshan left, with zeal and a sense of purpose. It is against the standards set by such stalwarts of yesteryear that the world will now judge how the EC performs now.

A thorough knowledge of the rules and regulations relating to the preparation, and conduct, of elections, as well as a clear understanding of one’s role in the entire process, are essential, at all levels, from the EC to the Chief Electoral Officers at the state level, and the functionaries who perform election-related duties at the district level and below. Role clarity is of the essence. Everything that the law requires must be done, without fear, or favour. No more, no less.

Administrative traditions, especially in elections, were abysmal. Staff routinely left mid-count, resuming the next day. Such negligence was tantamount to heresy, undermining the sanctity of the process

I recollect in this context, what happened in the 1972 General Elections, while I was serving as the Sub-Collector, of the Ongole sub-division of Prakasam district in Andhra Pradesh state, and, by virtue of that office, Returning Officer of the Parchur Assembly Segment. It was a tensely fought election, marked by violent incidents. The two principal candidates were locked in a close fight.

On the day of the counting, I made sure that all the instructions of the EC, including those pertaining to the number of counting personnel required, the counting supervisors and my Assistants Returning Officers, had been strictly followed. When the counting was over, the tally showed that (A) had lost by 250 votes. One of his agents telephoned me, requesting a recount. I very politely, but firmly, pointed out that I saw no reason to entertain the request, clarifying that my duty was not to count ballot papers, but to supervise the process of counting, in accordance with the EC’s instructions. To be on the safe side, I dictated a speaking order, detailing the reasons for my decision to reject the request. Fortunately, my stand was more than vindicated when the result was questioned in a Court, where counting was ordered to be held again. And the same result emerged, but by an even greater margin!

THROUGH THE OBSERVER’S LENS

A rather remarkable experience I had as an Observer in the Lok Sabha elections to the Madhepura Parliamentary Constituency in Bihar state in 1997 is worth mentioning here. The institution of Observers, incidentally, was Seshan’s idea. Conceived originally as a measure of ensuring independent and external observation of the electoral process, it had over time grown in strength and become a formidable weapon of guidance and advice, as well as a medium through which the whip could be cracked in times of necessity. After having lost a pitched battle with the EC (for one thing, I felt I had done enough election duty in the past, and the reports I got did not exactly encourage enthusiastic response!) to wriggle out of the appointment, I led a team of four people, two from the Indian Administrative Service, and one from the Indian Revenue Service (meant to observe compliance with instructions relating to propriety in expenditure incurred by the political parties in the fray), to Madhepura. The two political stalwart leaders of the state, Lalu Prasad Yadav, the incumbent Chief Minister, and Sharad Yadav, from the Janata Dal party, were locked in a fierce one-to-one contest.

To say that administrative traditions, especially in the matter of the electoral process, were in poor condition would be a gross understatement. So much so that during the process of counting the ballot papers, the staff had earlier been habituated to going home for the night and returning the next morning to continue! Nothing short of heresy! My team, quite naturally, took an absolutely no-nonsense attitude and threw the rule book at the district administration. The counting went on overnight, and the result was duly declared in the early hours of the following morning.

Among the few records I have broken in my life in various spheres, including sports and administration, this was probably one of which I remain the proudest! Among the phenomena that continue to plague the electoral process are booth capturing, impersonation, and rigging. In fact, in some parts of the country, rich feudal lords go to the extent of threatening entire villages with dire consequences if the people dare to come out and vote. Needless to say, their votes are cast by the landlord’s cronies.

ELECTORAL RESERVATIONS

At the time of the framing of the Constitution of India, given the uneven distribution of wealth, power and political influence in India, the need was felt for setting apart exclusive space in important constitutional institutions, such as Parliament and the State Legislatures, for sections of society which may go and represented without special attention. Accordingly, the Constitution provided for the reservation of some constituencies for persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes.
In some states, statutes provide for reservations, in addition, for women, in the local self-governance bodies. In practice, however, women, elected to office in such cases, continue to function as housewives, performing domestic chores, while the husbands become the de facto elected representatives, called, In a very unamusing manner, ‘Sarpanch – Pati’, etc.

Predictions, regarding the likely outcome of elections, are also made by pollsters who conduct ‘entrance’ and ‘exit’ polls to gain early indications as to how the result of an election may turn out to be

UNPREDICTABLE CURRENTS OF VOTERS

Several scientific methods are employed by expert analysts, known as psephologists, for forecasting the likely outcome of the election, by using historical data in regard to voting patterns, canvassing public opinion, through polls and studying campaign finance information, and other statistical data.
The word psephology owes its origin to British experts RB McCallum and WFR Hardie.
Predictions, regarding the likely outcome of elections, are also made by pollsters who conduct ‘entrance’ and ‘exit’ polls to gain early indications as to how the result of an election may turn out to be.
While the exercise of forecasting may, no doubt, be of interest to the general public, and political leaders in the fray, there is also the worrisome issue of the adverse impact that the predictions may have, on the election process, in places where it may still be going on. Following strong protests from certain quarters, especially the media, the EC has prohibited exit polls and decided that only post–poll opinion services be allowed. In fact, the release of exit poll figures before the closure of polling is now a criminal offence.

Be that as it may, the business of anticipating the voters’ intentions in India has always been tricky, if not impossible. While, on some occasions, voting has followed expected patterns, it has in many other cases, proved predictions totally wrong.
Events, such as the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi, the insult, of Chief Minister T Anjaiah of Andhra Pradesh, by Rajiv Gandhi (who was then only an MP), the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the attack by extremists on the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh N Chandrababu Naidu were all expected to be followed by standard reactions, from the public, in the elections that followed. Many, however, turned out to be wrong. The Congress (I) swept the Parliamentary elections. As did NTR in the elections the State Assembly, having fought the elections on the plank of Telugu pride having been hurt, by Rajiv Gandhi, on arrival at the Hyderabad airport, humiliating the state’s Chief Minister Anjaiah, who was there to receive him. Chandra Babu, however, failed miserably at the hustings, contrary to expectations, and belying hopes of the anticipated sympathy wave.

India, as we all know, is crazy about cricket, the game being nothing short of a religion, and literally comes to a grinding halt, come the annual IPL tournament. Knowledge about cricket has transcended barriers of all types, such as religion, race, creed, caste, language and sex

Andhra Pradesh has repeatedly proved to be adept at defying the logic of psephologists. Following Jayaprakash Narayan’s anti-corruption movement in 1977, the entire country, gripped by a wave of resentment against the ruling Congress (I)) party, voted the Janata Party-led alliance to power at the centre. But the people of Andhra Pradesh state, alone, stubbornly supported the Congress (I) and helped it retain the reins of power. Strangely enough, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy emerged as the lone successful Janata Party candidate from the Nandyal parliamentary constituency. In 1983, people from the farthest corners of the state voted as if they had had consultations and reached the same conclusion, and the legendary NTR–led TDP swept majestically into power.
In every one of those cases, no doubt, the anti-incumbency factor also played a role. Like the legendary lemming, the ruling parties had committed harakiri.

CIVIL SERVANT’S INSIGHT

I have often been asked as to how civil servants do not find it infra dig to serve as their masters who are not from similar backgrounds. My response has always been that those selected are really those who represent the will of the people, the fountain from which the provisions of the Constitution of India spring. The supremacy of those ‘elected’ by the people, over those ‘selected’ by a few from the elite, is absolute. It is the people, and the people, alone, who are the ultimate masters, in a democracy. No one else matters.

A LIGHTHEARTED DIVERSION TO END THIS PIECE

India, as we all know, is crazy about cricket, the game being nothing short of a religion, and literally comes to a grinding halt, come the annual IPL tournament. Knowledge about cricket has transcended barriers of all types, such as religion, race, creed, caste, language and sex. Such knowledge is not common, about the happenings in the country, which is probably why the Popular Bollywood actress, when told that a political party needed 272 to win in the coming elections, responded by asking, “In how many overs?”!
The problem with political jokes, it has been said, is that they sometimes get elected!

Mohan Kanda

Dr Mohan Kanda is a retired member of the Indian Administrative Service. In his long and distinguished career, he served in various capacities at the State as well as at the Centre including Chief Secretary of the Government of Andhra Pradesh, and Member of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Government of India. He has authored several books including ‘Ethics in Governance - Resolution of Dilemmas - with case studies’

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