Democracy in India – 10: Message from Bihar

Democracy in Bihar

This billboard from the ongoing elections in Bihar revived our reflections on democracy.

Focus first on the panel of four messages in the middle of the picture. For those who do not read Hindi, the messages, from left to right, are as follows:

  • Kheti ke liye 0% byaj par rna (loan for cultivation at 0% interest)
  • Har dalit va mahadalit parivaar ke liye ek rangeen TV (a color TV for each dalit or mahadalit family)
  • Har beghar ko 5 decimal zameen (5 decimal land for every homeless)
  • Har ghareeb parivaar ko ek jori dhoti, sari (a dhoti and sari for every poor family)

What should one conclude?

This is a striking case of a picture speaking louder than any number of pious words, the starkest commentary possible on the nature of democracy in a very poor country.

Undeniably, votes are being purchased and for a price as low as a dhoti/sari pair and a color TV. And this offer to purchase votes is being advertised in public without any seeming consciousness of its contradiction with the premise of representative governance. A sense of irony seems very faraway indeed.

In this series of posts we have covered this ground a number of times without coming across evidence that speaks as categorically as this billboard.

The normative premise of representative governance is that citizens vote for the party that most closely accords with their political, economic, cultural, and social preferences. The unstated assumption underlying this premise is that voters are either not open to or in need of a bribe in exchange for their votes.

Clearly, this assumption is being violated in India and, for that matter, in most countries as poor as India. This violation triggers at least two dynamics. First, political parties enter into a competition to offer the highest price for a vote either in real terms (cash or cash equivalent) or in virtual terms (promises for the future). Since nothing can prevent this competition from spiraling out of control there is no limit to the scale of future promises – Gharibi Hatao being one example – that cannot but remain unfulfilled.

Second, voters having learnt from experience that electoral promises hold little credibility, arrive at the rational decision to maximize their gains from what seems largely a meaningless exercise as far as their future prospects are concerned. Of course, not all voters think in this manner but enough do to give rise to the kind of billboard that triggered this reflection.  So, for a significant number of voters, elections become an opportunity to extract what they can as a price of the one asset conferred on them by the system of electoral governance (on which they were not consulted, not to forget), id est, their vote. Elections assume the character of a mela or festival at which a free meal might be obtained.

This is a cynical and sad conclusion but our billboard tells us that it is real and it should force us to examine the contextual nature of our institutions and reflect on what might be done to overcome these damaging dynamics.

The argument here is not that democracy anywhere else is pristine and perfect. To take the example of the USA, the power of money and media, especially in combination, is becoming ever more evident in shaping the outcome of elections. And the influencing of elected representatives by governments and corporate capital is also not quite a secret – the allocation of public and private money to individual representatives in return for casting their votes in a particular way is well documented. The size of the lobbying industry is a testament to how entrenched is this distortion of governance in advanced democracies.

An illustration of the above phenomenon can be inferred in the Indian case as well. Refer to the slogan at the top of the billboard:

  • Vikaas ki hogi tez raftaar, jab kendr-rajya men ek sarkaar (Development will speed up when the centre and the state are ruled by the same party)

Why should this be the case in a democracy? The implication is that if voters elect a party in the state different from the one at the centre, they would pay a price in terms of impediments in the allocation of funds. This is worse than a bribe because it also implies a threat. If the government at the centre is the government of all Indians, it ought not to act in a discriminatory fashion by obstructing development in states that choose different parties at the local levels.  Voters are being influenced by the exercise of power resulting from control of money.

Here we also see in effect the lingering traces of the monarchical ethos that we have commented on in this series of posts. This is how emperors used to interact with rival kingdoms in their domains. They tried first to overthrow them (The ‘regime change’ of modern times – look at the slogan at the bottom of the billboard: Badlaiye Sarkar, badaliye Bihar – Change the government, change Bihar). Failing that, the practice was to punish the latter by extracting tribute as the price for continued existence – the relationship was very clearly one of conflict and antagonism.

Notwithstanding the above, when the system unravels from the buying and selling of representatives or conflict at the level of governments down to the buying and selling of the individual votes of citizens, things assume a very different perspective. This is so because at that level all mechanisms of restoring accountability are lost. When a government or a representative acts, for whatever reason, in contradiction to the preferences of his or her constituents, one could reasonably expect the voters to express their displeasure in the next election. But when the voters themselves are up for sale no such exercise of accountability is possible.

Good governance, even in the best of circumstances, is a tall order given the power of international and local money in present times. At the level of poverty that exists in India it is doubly more difficult. Given that there are no real alternatives to representative governance, the challenge for concerned citizens is to find ways to resist the commodification of votes. One obvious measure would be for the election commission to disallow the type of blatant billboards under discussion and to vigorously prosecute any attempts to trade in votes.

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