City City Bang Bang, Columns

The unfairness of elections

Can an election ever throw up the right candidate? Or to put it more moderately, is an election the mechanism best suited to throw up representatives that will strive to work for their constituents and attempt to better their life? Are there in-built into the electoral process, a set of imperatives that help pre-determine one kind of outcome, irrespective of the quality of the candidates?

Increasingly, it would seem that what it takes to win an election is not only very different from what it takes to govern, but might well be at odds with the idea of providing governance. The privileging of representativeness in our democracy, with an emphasis on caste and religion, has meant that electable candidates are chosen with a view to who has the biggest electoral draw in terms representing the interests of a community rather than select those that have a view on issues of policy or administration. At one level, democracy does not require its practitioners to come equipped with a track record, and representativeness is perhaps the most vital element in the idea of democracy, but over a period of time, what representativeness has come to mean identity rather than action; the leader resembles his or her constituents, speaks for them and on the occasion that he or she acts on their behalf, it is often through the same narrow lens of community. Under these circumstances, the election abets the process of weeding out those that see their role in more secular terms, and focuses its attention narrowly on those with more sectarian agendas.

Winning elections requires a peculiar kind of caste and community arithmetic, multiplied by financial resources and propped up by on-ground muscle. The reason why the incidence of criminality in politics has been such a visible presence is partly due to the fact there are great similarities between the two skill sets. It is easier for a local tough to become a politician than it is for a local schoolteacher, to use a crude stereotype, not only because it easier for the former to mobilise resources and numbers far more easily but also because the electorate sees more advantages in being represented by someone who can thump the table on their behalf rather than someone who is not seen to have a realistic chance of winning.

The prospect of winnability makes unsuitable choices rational, for it is seen to be smarter to align with those that could win rather than root for those that might act on one’s behalf much more usefully if elected, but are seen with little real chance of doing so. Money is the other reason why only those that already have the ability or are able to generate it, are found suitable to be offered as candidates. The political system wards off change at the point of entry itself, by making the entry level conditions unsuitable for anyone but those that toe the existing line and play by the rules already laid down.

The election requires that a large number of people exercise their preference for one candidate over the others on the basis of some knowledge and familiarity with the individual’s previous track record, the party that he or she represents, the promises made, and the overall feeling of empathy and trust generated by the individual. Given the sizes of constituencies and the scale of the geographies involved, it is difficult for someone who is already not a visible presence in at least part of the constituency to mobilise adequate support. Chances are that the choices will veer towards those that already enjoy a measure of prominence and power in the area- superannuated student leaders, local toughs, successful lawyers, families of politicians, wealthy landlords, caste and community leaders and the like.

The underlying assumption of elections is that every individual takes a personal decision, on the basis of the inputs received, to choose the person deemed suitable to represent his or her interests. The truth is in the Indian social construct, the individual does not necessarily act as a singular entity and is often inclined to act as part of a larger collective. This is true not only of elections, but of many other walks of life. The election is in some ways almost asking for people to find their own appropriate collective and to cobble together enough numbers so as to increase the bargaining power at their disposal. It is rational to do so, for otherwise every individual feels virtually no ability to influence the outcome.

The middle class distrust of politicians is in part a sense of frustration with the electoral process. Part of the reason why visible outrage does not automatically translate into higher voting percentages is because the idea is laced with a sense of presumptive futility. It is also the reason why movements like the one led by Anna Hazare get traction; the apolitical nature of the struggle is found valuable. The disenchantment with the movement is in part due to its involvement in electoral politics; the paradox being that the impetus for change cannot succeed unless it becomes a variable in the elections but the very act of getting involved with anything to do with elections is seen as an act of contamination.

Electoral reforms will help. But too much has to change before reforms by themselves can be effective. As a structure, elections cannot create intent; that must exist in the system. Without intent, the structure merely re-inforces and perhaps amplifies all that is already wrong. Even when elections are not rigged, in some ways they always are. If not by design, then by definition.