To doubt the credentials of our democracy when the election process in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Assam and Puducherry are halfway through might sound impudent if not audacious. However, if we believe that democracy is only about elections and electoral majority, there is no room for concern as all the external coordinates of democracy are intact. The election machinery under the overall guidance and control of the Election Commission of India functions like a well-oiled machinery. There are observers to ‘observe’ if the code of conduct is being violated. Our Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) are like Caesar’s wife, beyond doubt and reproach. We can put the US to shame in our methodology mastery in holding elections and declaring results. That said, one has to hasten to add that all this is form and form alone does not create content. What our elections lack is content, the pith.
Like every ritual, democratic rituals too have gradually lost their meaning in the Indian context. One of the major election rituals is the publication of manifestoes by the major political parties. Political parties are by no means casual about drafting them. Considerable energy, calculation and imagination go into their drafting. But how much do the manifestoes influence the voters in their decision? Of course, the populist highlights or a few selected promises in every manifesto get some mileage during the campaign.
However, the majority of the promises or assurances in the manifestoes are there for the sake of form. They have been incorporated with the intent of upstaging the rival parties. The philosophy or administrative and economic feasibility of the manifesto promises do not find adequate space in campaigning. The punch of every campaign is always on emotional issues. Once a new government comes to power, except for the highlighted items, the manifesto as a document fades into oblivion; or becomes a liability, as the impracticality of several promises begins to haunt the government like a dreaded ghost. As a result, the manifesto loses its value as a document of electoral promises, which the citizen can demand to fulfil. Manifestoes here satisfy the form without enriching the content of democracy.
The nature and quality of campaigning during an election relate to both form and content. The state Assemblies or even Parliament only reflect or replay what happens during an election campaign. Amidst the code of conduct and the restrictions against unethical campaigning, dissemination of false news and malicious mischievous content, and unabashed display of money to stifle the rival candidate/party have once again brought out the fault lines in our ‘dance of democracy.’ It might be too dreamy to imagine our candidates coming on a common forum to present their side of arguments on the real issues of a constituency (Arguably, no police clearance would be given for such a ‘fantasy meeting’ citing possible law and order problems during and after such an event).
The absence of debates is a major flaw in our democratic practice. Though every party may have its own stated stand on important issues, the voters in a constituency are entitled to test the relative comprehension, competence, clarity and personal values of their candidates. In developed democracies, these debates are not a luxury but an essential part of the process of selection. But here, even discussions organised on TV channels with the candidates or their party representatives are often acerbic duels where panelists vie with each other to make sure that the other person is not audible (Sometimes the anchor makes sure of this). Democracy is all about differences, dissent and divergence, and the patience to accept them. It is the art of being able to disagree with dignity. Neither in the TV shows nor in our election campaigns is this virtue emphasised or valued. The graph of our national ability to ‘differ with dignity’ has been coming down gradually with every succeeding election, to the extent that election campaigns and poll rhetoric of the sixties and seventies today appear alien and incredible.
It has been the practice in civilised societies to insist on customary salutations while participating in debates and discussions. In the British Parliament, the members, even when engaged in adversarial debates, invariably address each other as ‘distinguished member’, or ‘honourable member’. In Indian law courts, it is always ‘Your Lordship’ (though this seems to have been pushed out), while addressing the judge and ‘my learned friend’ while addressing the lawyer on the other side. These honorifics lend some kind of restraint in the use of language and tone down the bitterness of arguments. The way our state legislatures and Parliament have been devaluing meaningful debates is a tragic sight, though it is only to be expected. The vitriolic nature of campaigning during elections seeps into the sacred spaces of the legislatures to manifest in unedifying scenes.
In this larger frame of things, national leaders have a responsibility to set the pitch and decorum quotient of their words and actions. Even if local leaders are drawn into the locally inflammable issues with emotional overtones, national leaders should have the required emotional distance and equipoise to view such topics in their real perspective and lift the quality of rhetoric by focusing on the larger problems of society and the country. Sadly enough, we have been witnessing national leaders dabbling in the local miasma with tutored content, while local leaders try to distort the national issues to ineptly interpret local ones. Electoral rivalry is natural but true leaders outgrow it soon after the battle. True leaders are often able to assuage the feelings on both sides and manage situations without allowing them to deteriorate into major incidents.
During such time, the local political workers look towards their leaders for solutions. State-level leaders look towards national leaders for guidance and wisdom. But that kind of statesmanship has been starkly missing in this round of election campaign. Within the ritual of a democracy, several leaders have dragged the campaign to unacceptable levels of poor language with substandard canards, ridicule and insinuations. This alarming tendency can only drain higher values of sensitivity, civility and tolerance from the electoral battle scene. Who doesn’t know that the tree of democracy will only wilt without these sources of nourishment?
Former Kerala chief secretary and ex-VC, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam Varsity