Saturday, January 31, 2009

"The baby that cries, gets the milk" (A day at the Conference on Electoral and Political Reforms)

The Beginning

The invite came from Anil Bairwal of ADR (Association of Democratic Reforms) and the plan was set. The 5th Annual ‘Conference on Electoral and Political Reforms’ was to be held in Mumbai and what could be a better weekend to the week that started with the launch of ‘Never Forget’.
When we entered the grand auditorium of Nehru Centre in Worli, Anil Bairwal was already on the mike, anchoring the event and politely requesting the still-contemplating delegates to take the seat. Anushka Manchanda, of the now-defunct band of girls Viva, opened the conference with her live performance which centered around 26/11 and its aftermath. She confessed to having gotten her Voter Id for the first time this year, and appealed to the ‘internet’ generation to do the same.

How I drifted

Then started the real action. Prof. Trilochan Sastry, Dean IIM-Bangalore, presented the opening address and quoted the 2002 Supreme Court ruling which made it mandatory for the candidates to file a sworn affidavit about their financial, educational, and criminal background. This particular ruling became the bedrock of election watch organizations like ADR, and led to decriminalization of politics to a great extent in the last 3-4 years. He added a sensational (and true!) statement to the above – “For the first time since Independence, we have the criminal background data of all the elected MPs in the parliament.” (Applause.)

He also talked briefly about what we (at NF) stand for – accountability. “It’s a sad truth that no election manifesto is ever fulfilled.” At this point, a thought struck me. Why are we, as a nation, so obsessed with elections? As per Prof. Sastry – there are at least 1200 Election Watch NGOs in India, which are now working together for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls. I understand that elections are the only time we exercise our right to elect, and they set the course for the next 5 years (or less, depending on when and how many MPs defect :-). I also appreciate, in fact am in awe of, the work done by ADR and similar organizations – they have actually made a difference even in states like UP and Bihar where terms like ‘Baahu-Bali’ are an indicator of a million things. But as I said, I wondered, what about the time period between one election and the next? How many NGOs are there asking for accountability? Are we not just keeping the ‘apparent idea of democracy’ alive by voting and then forgetting till the next elections?
(I missed some points while going on this trip of mine…and Prof. Sastry was done.)

Can they be reformed?

Next in was the first panel discussion of the day – Political Reforms. Moderated by that veteran of Panel Discussions on NDTV, Sreenivasan Jain (who was understandably off-key, fumbling, or banal in the absence of a TV camera) – the discussion itself drifted into a direct fight between Suresh Prabhu (MP from Mumbai) and the blood-thirsty audience. A few very sensible points were made by Ms. Aruna Roy (Magasaysay Award Winner and one of the most active RTI activists in India) who put the onus back on common man to ask for better delivery and added that “RTI is all you need.” When Suresh Prabhu justified the growing money-power during election time by saying – there is no option as we have to spend what the next guy is spending, else we stand to lose, she fired back saying – There is an option to spending more money. And that is – work harder! (But then, bashing a politician is as easy as cracking a blonde joke.)
The session ended on a good note with many audience members jumping up to ask questions (including a man who was sleeping all through, sitting next to me. He didn’t get a chance to ask and I was left wondering what the heck he would have asked.)

The Q and A threw up some interesting facts like the South Africa model of elections where no candidate is allowed to spend even a single penny and the state funds the election campaigns. One of the panelists (Rajesh Tandon) quoted some French (who else!) philosopher – “Politics needs sensible men with significant means.” So, a discussion which started with concerns about money dirtying politics, ended with a concealed acceptance of the fact that not much could be changed.

The CEC address

Chief Election Commissioner, N. Gopalaswami, was to address the conference just before lunch but his session was shifted up due to time issues. He started with a pat on the back for the work done by ADR and agreed that it’s a tough job to catch all the erring politicians. “It’s always like we are chasing a thief…and thief is always one step ahead.” He gave out lots of numbers indicating how bad it is out there, during the last 15-days of election-campaign. Some of the figures/instances I remember are – “22 Crores cash stashed in an ambulance…” “liquor intake of Punjab rose from 2.5 Lakh litres to 20 Lakh litres in the month of elections”, “150 crores spent in a single lok-sabha bypoll” and more mindboggling numbers.

He also agreed to the resolutions put forward by the conference (to decriminalize politics further) and addressed one of them in particular – the ‘Right to NOT vote’ demand by ADR. (The famous hoax mail titled ’Article 49-O’ may ring a bell here.) He said that giving the right to NOT vote in the current scenario is technically in direct conflict with the ‘secret vote’ funda. Since the AVMs don’t have a ‘no vote’ option, and since the officer at the booth has to account for every person entering to vote, he (the officer) will be forced to note down the name of the person who didn’t hit the pad, as a result, ‘uncovering’ him. So, till the time the government agrees to have a no-vote option, this is a dream on a hoax mail.

On me asking (post-presentation Q &A) specifically whether the issue is only technical or he has a fundamental take on the issue too, he said he had no fundamental issues with it. “It’s your vote, you decide how to use it. I will just give you an option.” And when I asked, ‘But then, in case of a majority with ‘No Votes’, will there be a re-election’, he dodged the question by saying ‘the law has to be changed for that…and that will come from the government. We are just a regulatory body.’

People further prodded him to get Election Commission to play a bigger role in democratic processes post-election and one guy even suggested that EC keeps a tab on ’promises in the manifesto and how they are delivered’ (yes, accountability!) – he got slightly upset and said – why should EC do your job? That’s something you should demand. And ended on these golden words – “The baby that cries, gets the milk.”


  1. A Good report with a great ending!

    quick question: How was the day for "Never Forget". Did anyone there comment on the pros/cons of our initiative?


  2. Need to take care that milk is not adultrated,no!

    Good synopsis! Any lessons learnt today which we could apply to the NEVER FORGET initiative?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Lessons..yes. There were people who had been trying to extract info about Government projects/delays (mostly related to electoral rolls or election process) and most of them were pretty hopeless about the system as it is now.

    So the first lesson, it's a tough road ahead.

    Aruna Roy's team presented a Rajasthani song with a puppet dance, which kind of mocked the gathering saying (to the effect) 'I see only you guys at every conference talking abt the same issues while the real voter, the real common man just doesn't care for these 'english' ideas'. he cares for his English daaru and free chicken to go with.'

    The lesson here, and my concern too, is are we also targeting only the English junta with their mandatory laptops and good-weekend-sleeps? 26/11 may be an emotional high-point, but are the city bred ready to gut it out on streets...filing 10 RTIs with zero results? I hope they are.

  5. (And I removed that comment titled 'Usha' as that was me only, logged in with my Mom's gmail id. :-| )