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The Heart of Democracy

Sitharaman’s words need to be considered deeply by all those who are committed to the health of Indian democracy
02:38 AM Mar 30, 2024 IST | Vivek Katju
the heart of democracy
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At an event hosted by a TV channel Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was asked if she would be contesting the Lok Sabha elections—currently, she is a member of the Rajya Sabha. Sitharaman was unusually and commendably candid in her response as reported in the media. She said that she had been asked by her party, the BJP, if she would like to be a candidate for the Lok Sabha. She had thought about the matter but declined. Her exact words, as reported, are worthy of being quoted in full because they go to the heart of India’s electoral democracy. Indeed, they are applicable to elections in all countries.

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Sitharaman said, “My party president did ask me, ‘Would you like to contest from somewhere in the south, the option is Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh’.” She went on to add “But I don’t have that kind of money to contest. I also have a problem whether it is Andhra or Tamil Nadu, it’s going to be a question of various other winnability criterion that they use—are you from this community, are you from this religion…I said ‘No, I don’t think I’ll be able to do it”.

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Sitharaman has highlighted three major issues relating to ‘winnability’ factors in a Lok Sabha election. These can also be extended to Vidhan Sabha polls. The factors are money, community and religion. An analysis of these factors would be useful. It has to be specifically noted that what is being attempted by me does not relate to any political party but applies to India’s political class as a whole.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) prescribes limits for the maximum amounts that can be spent by candidates on their elections. The current applicable limits were set by it in January 2022. Lok Sabha candidates in large states and large union territories can spend a maximum of Rs 95 lakhs while in smaller states and union territories the amount is Rs 75 lakhs. The Gazette of India on January 6, 2022 sets out in a list the states and the union territories and the relevant amounts that Lok Sabha candidates can spend. In Jammu and Kashmir the amount is Rs 95 lakhs while in Ladakh it is Rs 75 lakhs. As Sitharaman mentioned Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh as the states that the BJP president had indicated to her the amounts for both states are Rs 95 lakhs.

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It is not clear if Sitharaman was indicating the official amount which candidates are allowed to spend or the practical realities of expenditures incurred by candidates. The fact is that the entire country and the people have been aware of these practical realities almost from the time elections began in 1951-52. Very few politicians have the kind of popularity which ensures their victories without resorting to practical realities. Indeed, it is difficult for persons of limited means to consider contesting elections.

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Of course, the funding of political parties should be transparent. The Supreme Court has relied on this principle in the Electoral Bonds case. It is necessary for candidates to declare their personal wealth and the ECI keeps a close look at the campaigns of various candidates to seek to ensure that they adhere to the prescribed expenditure limits but practical realities are realities. It is now essential for the political class to consider the issue of election funding by candidates and parties. While doing so it can delve into the experience of other democratic countries for such an exercise may show pathways for our democratic process regarding election funding.

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Sitharaman’s other two points relate to community and religion. Legislators represent the people for the purpose of making laws and to maintain an oversight over the executive. The question is what is the criterion which the people should adopt while casting their vote. Naturally, the answer is that they should choose a person who they consider would be best able to project their concerns and interests as part of the national interest. That leads to the problematic issue of what should the people consider to be their interests. Political scientists have sought to find answers to these questions through the centuries and the debate continues. These debates take place in all countries because community identities on the basis of caste, colour, class, religion, ethnicity and region among others, weigh on people’s minds and emotions when they take decisions to choose their representatives. This is a universal phenomenon.

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Problems arise when candidates seek to deliberately pander to or manipulate the voters’ identities instead of allowing them to play out naturally. Ideally, political parties and candidates should spell out their programmes and policies and allow the voters to weigh them and thereafter decide whose policies are in harmony with their particular interests within the rubric of the national interest. This will allow the voters to dispassionately assess the past record and the projected policies of the parties. However, while the political class commits itself to these principles they are not always observed and sectoral passions are sought to be raised.

That is what Sitharaman clearly hinted at when she said that winnability has to take into account community and religious factors. If the object becomes to win the elections by any possible means, then parties and candidates do not follow democratic principles. Instead, elections are treated as wars to be won by any means. This leads to the erosion of democracy.

Sitharaman’s words need to be considered deeply by all those who are committed to the health of Indian democracy.

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