When I chaired the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs (1999-2004), I would regularly receive dignitaries from around the world as part of my duties. All expressed admiration for India’s success in maintaining its democracy, a standout example in a region dominated by variants of authoritarianism and a relative rarity in post-colonial Asia and Africa more generally. By contrast, Indians could and did change their governments through the ballot, as they did in 1977, when Indian democracy faced its gravest peril. I find it both odd and unfortunate that some of my more impatient fellow-citizens do not seem to realise the magnitude of India’s democratic achievement. In the 1950s and 1960s, the mainstream wisdom in the West was that democracy could not survive in India. I always responded politely to the praise, but having fought and won three Lok Sabha elections I also knew very well the chronic ailments gnawing away at the entrails of our system.
One of these is the still unaddressed issue of campaign financing. The problem is endemic, and it applies to almost all parties. There are no easy solutions to a deeply rooted disease, but there are palliatives. A legal framework of partial state funding of election expenses is long overdue, which, if combined with the crowd-funding model of transparent, verifiable small donations through the Internet, can have a containing effect on the disease.
India is fortunate to have a credible Election Commission that is free of partisan control and government interference. This is again a rarity in developing countries, and we must remember that our democracy is only six decades old. After our first parliamentary elections were held in 1951-52, the then head of the EC, Sukumar Sen, received accolades from around the world. Since the mid-1990s, the EC has grown wings and become more assertive and activist, even interventionist.
As a contestant in four Lok Sabha elections from West Bengal, I remember how the former ruling party of West Bengal ran circles around the EC’s officials and especially the “observers”. Despite the best of intentions, they often remained just that — observers — as the then ruling party, which had honed “rigging” into a fine art, continued as usual with the connivance of a section of the police and the civil administration. The methods were varied, from outright intimidation to more insidious forms of fraud.
After the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the EC’s chief observer in West Bengal recommended that polling in all of the state’s 42 LS constituencies be held again, so widespread and serious were the “irregularities”.
Unfortunately, some of the practices that became routine during the 1977-2011 era in West Bengal have continued. The good news is that the EC is wide awake to this and exerted every nerve and sinew to ensure that the 2016 assembly elections were as free and fair as possible.
In fact, all political parties have a vested interest in a neutral and effective EC. Cast aside by an unstoppable tide of “people power” exercised through the EVM five years ago and in further decline since then, the party that ruled West Bengal with an iron fist from 1977 to 2011 seems to have belatedly realised this. Its leaders now run like squealing children to the EC with complaints against the state’s post-2011 ruling party.
However, no institution can be above scrutiny. As supervisor and adjudicator of India’s democracy, the EC needs to ensure that its conduct is above suspicion, and that it is not influenced by pressures.
When the Indian National Army was in retreat from Northeastern India in 1944 after the battles around Imphal, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose sent his soldiers a message: “Never lose faith in India’s destiny”, meaning the inevitability of freedom. Since there is so much to be cynical about in our political life today, let me paraphrase that to: Never lose faith in India’s democracy. Our democratic edifice is strong.
If we don’t lose faith, we will make it even stronger.