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HVK Archives: How to halt politicians' unprincipled race for power

How to halt politicians' unprincipled race for power - The Pioneer

Sudheendra Kulkarni ()
19 December 1996

Title : How to halt politician's unprincipled race for power
Author : Sudheendra Kulkarni
Publication : The Pioneer
Date : December 19, 1996

Of the 11 prime ministers India has had so far, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee may
have served for the shortest stint in office, but few can deny that he has
the highest popularity ratings among all the likely candidates for the
nation's top job today. Uniquely, his popularity transcends the support base
of his party. The veteran BJP leader has once again given proof of his
national approach to issues by speaking on a subject which goes to the very
heart of democratic governance in the country. Delivering the 13th Desraj
Chowdhary Annual Memorial Lecture on "Challenges to Democracy in India" in
New Delhi on November 11, he made some far-reaching proposals which deserve
to be debated more widely and seriously in media and political circles than
has been the case so far.

"Let there be a serious nationwide debate on all the possible alternatives
for systemic changes to cleanse our democratic governing system of its
present ills. We should not shy away from discussing the merits of even the
presidential system of government," Mr Vajpayee said, adding, "if the
presidential system of government is considered impractical or undesirable,
then we should introduce radical and undelayed changes hi the present
parliamentary democracy system itself."

The specific proposal he has made in the latter category is the call for
introduction of a "list system" or partial proportional representation of
political parties in Parliament and State legislatures. Mr Vajpayee argues
that the present "first-past-the-post" system, in which the candidate winning
the largest number of votes in an election is declared the winner,
irrespective of whether he has the support of the majority of the voters who
exercise their franchise, weakens the representative character of elective
bodies. Thus, a party with a larger percentage of overall votes may still
have a lower number of MPs and MLAs-and vice versa. "This anomaly needs to be
corrected by introducing proportional representation for the political
parties in at least 50 per cent of the total number of seats in the Lok Sabha
and the Vidhan Sabhas," he suggests.

Neither proposal is original. A few Congressmen and some unattached
intellectuals have mooted the presidential system before, most notably during
Indira Gandhi's second term in office. The idea failed to catch the
imagination of the people primarily because of the skepticism that this might
have been Indira Gandhi's attempt to perpetuate her autocratic rule. It is
unlikely to spark a serious debate even now. The reason, as the BJP leader
himself has hinted, is that politicians and pundits by and large are united
in thinking that the presidential system is "impractical" if not entirely
"undesirable". There is an unstated belief that the parliamentary system,
gravely deficient though it may be, has not fully exhausted its potential.

Hence, Mr Vajpayee's second proposal is what merits serious discussion. His
spirited call for partial proportional representation in the Lok Sabha and
Vidhan Sabhas, to the extent of 50 per cent of their total seats, taken
together with his other specific pleas, is a precise response to the widely
felt need for redressing the deep malaise afflicting the parliamentary system
of governance. The virtue of this proposal, in contrast to the one about the
presidential system, is that it is both desirable and practical.
Significantly, even communist parties have in the past called for
proportional representation in the legislatures. This raises hopes for a
healthy all-party consensus on the issue.

The 'big picture'

Are changes in our governing system really necessary? Or does the fault lie
with the people operating it? The answer to both questions has to be in the
affirmative. Systemic changes are a necessary, though not sufficient,
condition for the rejuvenation of Indian democracy. They will, hopefully,
enable political parties to bring in better human resources in the governing
structures without being exclusively dependent on an electoral system that
has been almost totally subverted by money power, muscle power, and vote-bank
considerations of castes and communities. It is virtually impossible for
those individuals who are genuinely interested in serving society to succeed
on their own in the present electoral system.

How will the "list system" remedy these maladies? It will have a beneficial
influence at two levels. One, in the internal culture of political parties;
and, two, on the quality of governance at the Centre and in the states. If
50 per cent of the representatives in elective bodies are to be drawn from
the lists provided by political parties, it will remove a big burden off
their leaders' heads to have to depend on candidates whose sole qualification
is their winnability, itself a function of the money and muscle power the
candidate or party can mobilise and the caste-communal equations that they
can exploit. At least in non-trivial parties, this will initiate inviting
outside talent, thereby professionalising the language and conduct of
politics.

This, in turn, will have a direct effect on the quality of governance.
Whichever party or coalition of parties comes to power, it will have the
possibility of forming a Ministry in which at least half the portfolios can
be headed by professionals with a proven record of expertise and achievement.
In today's modern, knowledge-driven times, a growing number of ministries
need less of political prowess and more of professional acumen. Today we have
many ministers in charge of important economic or developmental portfolios
with which they have not had even nodding acquaintance. The good or bad
functioning of these ministries, however, impacts crucially on the destiny of
the nation.

Today, neither MPs nor MLAs are performing with any degree of competence or
commitment their two primary functions: Law-making and reflecting public
opinion in Parliament and the State legislatures. Barring exceptions, those
who get elected to these apex democratic institutions are neither trained in
law-making nor do they seem to have an inclination to develop the necessary
competence in their profession. The natural inclination of today's MPs and
MLAs is to chase executive power.

This unprincipled race for power is spawning opportunistic alliances and
coalitions which, says Mr Vajpayee, often lack the popular mandate even in
the numerical sense of the term. "Yet, they capture, and survive in, power
due to inherent systemic flaws. Multiparty system is the soul of democracy,
but opportunist power-seekers have perverted it by developing a vested
interest in political fragmentation." The most glaring example is the present
13-party United Front farce, in which the Front itself has no majority of its
own and whose Prime Minister belongs to a party which has only 45 members in
the Lok Sabha!

The "list" system may be only a partial answer to the gigantic problems
before Indian democracy. Still, the chief merit of Mr Vajpayee's proposal is
that it is transparently nonpartisan. Not even his political and ideological
critics can find anything in it that can even remotely be construed as being
"pro-BJP". In keeping with his emerging image as an elder-statesman, he has
presented his views in the framework of a "big picture", the picture being
that of Indian democracy in the 21st century. The big picture, however, will
remain a bad picture in the absence of deep-going systemic changes.



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