The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 18, 2003

The reality and future of electoral politics
Ashutosh Kumar

At The Polls: Parliamentary Elections in the Federal Phase
by M P Singh and Rekha Saxena. Orient Longman, New Delhi. Pages 302. Rs 500.

At The Polls: Parliamentary Elections in the Federal PhaseINDIAN democracy seems to have done well if we consider the fact that the number of people who participate in electoral politics is increasing continuously. This strengthening of the democratic process has led to an alteration in the very nature of electoral politics in the country.

How have the analysts of contemporary Indian politics made sense of the social and political transition that has taken place in the electoral arena in the last decade that has been marked by the politics of social justice, Hindutva and the market? The writings on the subject can be divided into two categories. The first kind of writings is concerned with providing concrete statistical information. The second kind is that which attempts to theorise the elections using western tools and concepts without any reference to the reality of the post-colonial Indian democracy. There is, however, a dearth of theoretical studies based on concrete information.

The book tries to fill this gap. There is a sincere effort to come out with a theoretical framework for the study of electoral politics at the federal level with references to the Lok Sabha elections in 1996, 1998 and 1999. On the basis of a description of the backdrop to these elections, the selection of the party candidates, the major electoral issues figuring in the manifestos and campaigns, the authors discern a paradigm shift from a predominantly parliamentary mode of politics to a "coalitional parliamentary-federal frameworks of governance" as evidenced in the form of a "certain measure of proportionality of representation".


The authors hold the 1989 elections as watershed one, which marked the beginning of a "new electoral pattern" characterised by the federalisation of the party system, with regional parties gaining in terms of political influence at the federal level. The authors also note an increasing level of adherence to the politics of pluralism and consensus as evidenced from "an intricate network of regional alliances".

The authors argue that the above shift underlines the need for a rethinking on the constitutional provisions relating to the nature and functions of constitutional offices, inter-governmental agencies, as well as the federal structure. That explains why the authors, besides mentioning the new trend of judicial activism, also take up the issue of reforms relating to electoral and party politics in India.

The emerging electoral politics is also witness to a gradual degeneration of political parties and electoral processes. Such degeneration manifests itself through the increasing role of organised crime, increased corruption and the holding of big businesses by a new breed of politicians who act as vote contractors. In this context the authors have extensively referred to the recommendations of the two parliamentary committees headed by Dinesh Goswamy and Inderjit Gupta, as well as the Law Commission in 1999 and the Election Commission in 1998.

Concerned with making the electoral system function more efficiently, cleanly and equitably, the authors advocate the need for a level playing field and for curbing the misuse of money and muscle power. The authors also insist on the need for reforms in the rules that govern the regulation of the nature of representation. They also seek to curb the proliferation of parties through various methods such as more stringent recognition criteria and disincentives for smaller parties. Such a view tends to ignore the close link between electoral and party politics and the social realities that these reflect. In their attempt to make the electoral process more manageable, the authors also do not give due consideration to size and diversity of the Indian electorate.