Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Vote for change - Really?

And so the great Indian elections are upon us once again (thankfully after the complete 5 year period), and once again it's time for the universal traits of politicians to shine through the despair and hopelessness, and once again I am reminded of Ogden Nash's lines,
Man is a victim of dope,
In the incurable form of hope.
We hope that things will get better with the passage of time, and every election, the youth make the right noises during the run up to the grand finale, only to have their hopes shattered by the motley, rag-tag crew that eventually end up getting elected to Parliament.

But this time, the run up itself seems a lot more inclusive and different from the previous elections. The youth, buoyed by the victory of Barack Obama, seem to have incorporated his slogan of 'change' into their stride, which is interesting because the current UPA govt and the previous NDA govt have a pretty similar track record when it comes to all major issues. Now if we are hoping for a change from a fairly stable and decent governance provided to us in the last 10 years, what are we hoping for? The smorgasboard of gutless politicos who've come up with a coalition called the 'third front', or the dalit dominatrix called Mayawati? Both these options will take the country back to the stone age, you can be assured of that. So the question still stands: change what?

Let me make my thoughts a bit clearer. I understand the intended usage of the word change. It's an indication that the people are fed up with the current crop who've parked their backsides comfortably in Delhi and in Parliament and enjoy privileges paid for with the tax payers money. But the problem is no matter what the youth (and by youth I mean all those below 30) want to see changed, they still don't have the numbers to effect this change. Now one other thing needs to be made clear: when I said youth, I was referring to the youth educated and living in the urban areas of our countries. And as I said before, they just don't have the numbers to effect the changes they want to see. Rural India outnumbers urban India almost 4 to 1 (some say almost 5 to 1 and more if you don't consider towns as urban and bracket them with the rural areas). Although we the middle class are seemingly connected with the rest of middle class India via the media, print and electronic, the disconnect with the rural areas (and for that matter the slums in our big cities) is evident - we simply don't have the numbers at present even though we see people across the cities unequivocally stating that they want change.

Which brings me to my main grouse against a Parliamentary form of democracy. The idea here is to elect a representative from your constituency based on the party he or she belongs to and whether you like what the party stands for. But there in lies the problem. What's to guarantee that the representative from my area is actually going to work for the development of my constituency? Take an example of some well known politicians irrespective of the constituencies they actually represent. Let's compare Arun Jaitley of the BJP and Jagdish Tytler of the Congress from constituency A and Varun Gandhi (BJP) and Rahul Gandhi (Congress) from constituency B. Take const. 'A' first - for the section that believes the BJP's only agenda is to divide India along communal lines, voting the BJP to power would be unthinkable, but when a decent person like Mr Jaitley is contesting against a Jagdish Tytler (accused of leading mobs to massacre Sikhs in '84), it would be a no brainer in favour of Mr Jaitley. Now the Congress may have a 'cleaner' image, but the BJP candidate is the one who gets voted in. So it's the individual and not the party that's taken precedence. Similarly, in the Varun Gandhi vs Rahul Gandhi case, sane and rational people know that if Rahul gets voted in, there's a section of the Congress that thinks he's already fit to be the PM, so people may be a little averse towards electing him, but when propped up against his cousin, Rahul is way ahead when it comes to working at the 'grass root levels', and is seemingly more calm than his cousin with his alleged new found 'fire'. So even if the people are impressed by the BJP's manifesto with all their tax breaks (failing to mention where the deficit will come from), voting for their (BJP) candidate would be a strict no-no when it comes to Varun, and Rahul would get voted in. Again, the individual triumphs over the party. Which is why in the last 15 years or so we've seen quite a few hung parliaments, and coalition politics has become the name of the game, with smaller parties with hardly 3-4% of the vote becoming king makers resulting in horse-trading and a host of ugly deals.

So does that mean the Presidential system is better? On the face of it, yes, it is better as it doesn't face the problems posed by the Parliamentary system. A chief executive is chosen by the people, an individual who is put forward as their (party) choice for the people, and he or she then selects his/her team and appoints individuals in charge of specific departments. These ministers/secretaries then go about doing their jobs only in that area, and don't have to distract themselves with the concerns of their constituents, for whom separate members are voted into the lower houses of the assembly/parliament. Take the case of the USA. Congressmen and Congresswomen are the people's representatives from their constituencies, and they work towards improving their constituency, without having to worry about foreign policy or any such thing, unlike a politician from a Parliamentary system, where not only must the MP manage his/her ministry (if they are ministers), but they also need to address the needs and grievances of their constituents.

For the voters this would mean more number of elections, but at least the system is in place to ensure that they get the best out of their representatives. I am obviously making the sweeping assumption here that the representatives want to work for the welfare of society, and aren't the power hungry wolves we usually find. It's obvious that those who are inefficient will fail to deliver in whichever form of democracy there is for there is no way an inefficient person can become efficient without an effort from within.

So at the end of the day, what change can we really expect when we are expected by our system to vote a person just because he or she may belong to a party that believes in a set of principles, and not because of the credentials of the candidate in question. Is it time to question whether we need to change our current system, or is it sufficient to just get the parties to change their mindset and put up candidates not based on their muscle and winnability, but because of their clean image, commitment and dedication to work for civil society.

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