No matter who wins the Bihar battle or what conclusions one may derive post the election, one thing is sure that the country has embarked upon the age of its worst electoral politics. India’s ruling and largest political party has not only missed a major opportunity to commence electoral reforms, but has also left no stone unturned to authenticate corrupt electoral practices. One shouldn’t wonder if candidates with criminal background go berserk during the Bengal Assembly polls next year.
The range of electoral promises may scale new heights moving away from usual freebies such as cycles, laptops to fancier ones like accommodation or land allotment. The country may well also witness fresh means of injecting black money into elections as well as another generation of political dynasty.
Expecting electoral reforms from a party, who while in Opposition pitched for it at various platforms, wasn’t unreasonable or unrealistic. Ideally, reform should have begun by the time elections in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand concluded, but if these elections were conducted hurriedly, Bihar polls were rightly the exact time the Narendra Modi government should have swept out corrupt electoral practices.
One should recall Modi’s public meeting at Allahabad Parade Ground in February last year, where he said: “The moment we come to power, we will launch a campaign to end criminalisation of politics. The government will present affidavits of every candidate before the Supreme Court for a quick hearing and judgment. Whosoever is found to be criminal, will lose her/his membership and seats will be filled through by-elections. The same will be followed in case of state assemblies.”
At the spur of the moment, Modi went on to declare that if he was found guilty, he would face a similar fate. He promised that Parliament under his leadership would be clean. Nobody knows who withheld this reform. However, what is well-known is that the largest number of candidates with a criminal record were fielded by the BJP itself in the first phase of Bihar elections. One of the BJP MPs RK Singh was even reprimanded by the high command because he happened to highlight the sale of BJP tickets to criminals.
Undoubtedly, BJP leaders, much like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati and Lalu Prasad have done, will say criminal cases are politically motivated. However, this was not what BJP was brought to power for.
The debate to stall the trend of electoral freebies like laptops, cycles and unemployment allowances had begun in India before the last Lok Sabha elections, and BJP was an enthusiastic participant in it. In July 2013, the Supreme Court had asked the Election Commission of India to prepare directives regarding electoral promises. It had observed that announcement of sops before elections undermine clean elections.
BJP was supposed to lead this reform after coming to power, but the party conveniently disregarded electoral reforms and went on promising scooters, houses, petrol and land in exchange of votes in Bihar.
The Supreme Court’s 2013 order had come on the appeal challenging polls promises of distribution of TV sets and mixer-grinders in the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections. It is interesting to note that the southern state is again up for polls next year.
In August this year, when preparations for Bihar polls were at their peak, the government opposed bringing in political parties under RTI through an affidavit to the Supreme Court. It is a reform that could have paved the way for parties to keep their account books clean and election expenditure under check.
Moving ahead from here, transparency could be introduced into election funding – and steps could be taken to curb the use of black money in elections. BJP, before coming to power, favoured this move but advancing towards Bihar polls, it has thrown its weight against transparency. Bihar witnessed huge cash seizure and 25 per cent of the seats were declared prone to use of black money, by election commission.
BJP’s somersault on electoral reforms is disappointing because, throughout last many years, the party has been pontificating about political probity. However, after coming to the power, instead of reforms, the party has begun giving a new definition and legitimacy to political dirt.
If we do not believe that elections are only made for defeat or victory, we will have to admit that through the Bihar elections political parties have collectively written an obituary of our hopes for electoral reforms. Whatever the results of Bihar elections may be, Indian democracy has lost a big chance to establish reforms and has staged a new and unprecedented low of electoral politics.
(First published on dailyo.in)