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Democracy, Debates and Politics

October 24, 2012

The Presidential elections in the United States always attract international attention. The outcome of these elections influences events and geopolitics around the world. It is for this reason that I followed the three Presidential debates and the Vice-presidential debate that took place over the last one month in different locations of the United States. One felt sad and worried about the quality of the debate and the lack of depth in the understanding of issues in the participants. Whether it was Obama or Romney, it was evident that they had a very narrow ‘political’ view of issues and events and were far removed from playing the role of a leader. One shudders to think of the kind of decisions that these leaders will take once they get elected to office. While Obama looked lost, listless and insipid, Romney did nothing to hide his narrow conservative views. The bottom-line was that they had no new ideas, no vision nor any solutions to the problems of employment, environment, economy, health care or foreign policy that plague America and the world. At the end of the day, all that they demonstrated was political one-upmanship over each other.

While we in India are very critical of our politicians, I found that things are not very different in the US. While India is said to be a loud, noisy and not so healthy democracy, one usually carries the impression that democracy in the US is healthier, less noisier and more bipartisan. One needs to dig a little deeper to understand that there is not much difference today between the politicians, their political debates and arguments and narrow sectarian views in both these countries. The DNA of politicians, whether they are in India or in the United States, whether they are in the Congress, BJP or in the Democratic or Republican parties are all similar. They are more focused on themselves rather than on the larger issues concerning their citizenry or humanity at large. The last two years is seeing a lot more citizen action and civil society activism in both these countries. Whether it is the anti-corruption movement in India or the Occupy Wall Street in the US, the average citizen is getting increasingly restless and intent on demanding accountability and transparency. While this is a very encouraging sign, we need to understand the challenges that these citizens would face if they want to enter the electoral fracas. Entering the electoral fray in India is not determined by your qualification, the intent to do good or one’s record of public service. It is determined by the money you have, the caste you belong to, your family lineage and how willing you are in bending and breaking the rules of the game. It is not easy for an average well-meaning US citizen to enter politics too. 98% of the Senators and members of Congress get re-elected. The story that does the rounds is that Senators and Congressmen have to die in office for someone else to enter in their place.

The role of money power in elections is debated in both these countries. We know that the spending limit set by the Election Commission in India is a joke. A candidate for the Parliament elections is allowed to spend a maximum of Rs 25 lakhs, whereas in reality they are known to spend anywhere between 30-50 crores. Imagine the amount that is spent on the Parliamentary elections cumulatively across India! It is no different in the US. This year’s Presidential election is expected to cost both the candidates cumulatively 2.5 billion US dollars. When you add another 3.5 billion dollars that the elections to the Congress will cost, it results in a staggering 6 billion, or Rs 32,000 crores. And this is in a time of economic recession. Where does all this money come from and what do the candidates spend this on? While in India, one can say that they spend on their campaign, on buying the voters and on keeping the electorate happy, in the US it is mostly spent on campaigning and TV time. Hundreds of hours of advertising time means more money for the channels and media groups. Money for the Indian politician may come from kickbacks and bribes while it is more respectably termed ‘campaign funding’ in the US. One needs to see the list of campaign donors to understand the reasons why they would give so much money to these candidates. One needs to add the expenses incurred by various lobbying firms in the US. There are more than 11,700 registered lobbying firms in the US and they spent around 1.68 billion dollars in the year 2012 alone. Now one does not need too much intelligence to say how obliged the winning candidate will be to his donors. One shudders to think that decision-making in India or in the US are guided more by these interests and pressure groups rather than by public interests. Corruption in whatever form is still corruption and it leaves one wondering whether this is the price one has to pay for democracy.

What then are the solutions that can make things better? Does the solution lie in the involvement of more qualified, competent and ethical people? While this is indeed a necessary prerequisite, one cannot imagine that the solution can be so simple. We have reduced democracy to a tool available only in the hands of the rich and mighty and these interests will not easily let go of their hegemony and control over power and decision-making. National or people’s interests have become secondary to the economic and political interests of these powerful forces and we have reduced democracy to ‘a governance process for and by the rich and powerful’. On one side we have a silent group of people (mostly middle class and literate) who consider ignoring the political process and elections as the best way to cope. On the other side we have a large number of people who increasingly have started to believe that they need to ‘encash’ on the situation and have become willing participants in corrupting the entire democratic process. How do we navigate through this difficult but much-needed change process in not just educating the people who stand for elections but also the people who vote for them? We need to educate the citizens to not just sit back and complain or enjoy the fruits of a corrupt process, but to actively engage with the system and demand both accountability and transparency from the ruling class. We need to be watchful of the growing power and span of control of Industrial houses and bring in proper regulation to limit their role. Countries have to explore state funding of elections and use the power of technology to reduce the costs involved in the conduct of elections. Citizens need to internalize the demand democracy makes on them and play a more enlightened and engaged role in the affairs of the state and country. We need to usher in a political process based on ethical considerations, true democratic principles (both within and outside the party), a genuine desire to serve the citizenry and one which is not driven by money, caste and a senseless desire to stay in power forever. We need to explore ways to eliminate the barriers of entry to the political arena and make it feasible for well-meaning people to give it a shot. We need to create a ‘movement’ by bringing together such people who can throw away their own individual ego needs and coalesce to form a critical mass large enough to get the ball rolling.

Let us not forget that electoral democracies now represent 120 of the 192 existing countries and constitute 58.2 percent of the world’s population. Despite the criticisms that a few may have against democracy, mankind seems to have no other practical, respectable and dignified option left but to make it work.


Categories: Musings
  1. JS
    October 25, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    I hold the view that election expenditure in times of recession are actually good for the economy.

    Private enterprise is always more effective than public, anywhere in the world. The difficulty of big funding is that they’ll take their pound of flesh. Putting a cap – any cap – is counter productive.

    Governance is possibly the toughest job in a democracy. It’s not for the illiterate; nor is it the preserve of a handful. The solution to a true & participative democracy is ‘microscopic’ decentralisation – a concept Mahatma Gandhi envisaged.

    The freedom to local bodies must be both legal and financial. Its the latter that the Indian version has successfully avoided. In fact, practiced to the contrary, not just in local bodies but even in ‘independent’ constitutional entities like the Judiciary and Law enforcement.

    Extreme decentralisation will result in foreign policy, defense, a few monetary and fiscal matters. The US has gone some distance in these respects, but the Swedish model has done a better job.

    Citizenry – especially the middle band – will get much more involved if the power centers that impact day to day life are nearer, not farther; their aspirations on the political front would seem realistically achievable.

  2. Arun Karpur
    October 24, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    Balu: The statistics you present are staggering. I know that in US people are faced with an option of selecting between the two candidates who will do less harm than the other.

    One thing that I would like to contribute here is that people must realize that politicians they put in offices are in some way a collective reflection of their beliefs and practices. As you candidly mention about the corruption in politics, I believe it is also a reflection of what people in democratic nations practice in their lives. If they were not, then such issues would have been addressed as soon as they would appear in the system.

    If people collectively reject the extremist positions of either candidates in US, they will be forced to lead in a way that is much more balanced. From the foreign policy perspective, I am not certain how many people in US know the consequences their vote has on the dynamics of the entire world politics. I think, as you suggest, an engaged and enlightened citizenry is not only a necessary but a required condition for a balanced democracy ensuring prosperity and growth for all. When top 2% in US can contribute up to 10% of their profits into political campaigns and buy out more than 70% stake in policy-making, I think the rest 98% can certainly make their voices heard by supporting a candidate that they think will represent their values and aspirations of life. I also believe that people should stop making decisions based on political TV ads or even these televised debates to blunt the vested forces in politics. A non-ideological citizenry engagement is needed to ensure that politics remains non-partisan or less hyper-partisan. For this, the citizenry has not only got to know more or become education, but also become more evolved and enlightened of living in an inter-connect world where sharing resources no longer is termed as a “socialist” idea and promoting individual enterprise is no longer equated with the “conservative” movement. The citizenry needs to explore and develop a new identity – political identity – that is free from one’s religious or caste-based identity. And for this we all have to evolve from simple beings taking care of day to day lives and problems to ones with a collective identity. My two cents!

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