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29 November, 2010

Games politicians play

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The strengths and weaknesses of democracy are in evidence in the political developments that make headlines in the Indian media these days. The players in the political game do not appear to have a proper appreciation of either.

Last week a new government took office in Bihar, the country’s second most populous state and one of the most backward. The elections were marked by less violence and higher polling than before. The ruling Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition was returned to power with an increased majority in the State Assembly.

Political observers described the elections as a triumph of democracy. They gave credit to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who had placed the state on the path of development, and the voters, who had apparently risen above caste loyalties.

The JD (U)-BHP combine, which had won 143 seats in the 243-member house with about 36 per cent of the votes in 2005, bagged 206 seats this time by raising its vote share by three percentage points. The rival Rashtriya Janata Dal-Lok Janshakti Party alliance lost about nine percentage points and its strength in the house dropped from 64 to 25. The Congress, which had won nine seats last time with a vote share of 6.09 per cent, polled 8.38 per cent of the votes but got only four seats.

The representative character of the legislatures thrown up by the ‘first past the post’ system is open to question. However, the system often helps provide for stability. If the system of proportional representation was in force there would have been a hung Assembly in the state, leading to political uncertainty.

A negative feature which has come to light is that more than half the members of the new Assembly are persons with criminal background. Both the ruling parties and the opposition parties have a dismal record in this regard.

Rich men with criminal antecedents started entering the political arena when parties began to rely on money power and muscle to win elections. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in a petition filed by a non-governmental organisation, all candidates are now required to file affidavits declaring their assets and providing particulars of any criminal cases they are involved.

The Election Commission makes the contents of the affidavits public, but there is nothing to indicate that the revelations influence the voters’ choice.

At present, the democratic system faces a severe test at the national level with opposition parties obstructing the proceedings in the two houses of parliament with a view to forcing the government to concede their demand for a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) to go into the telecom scandal.

On November 1, the opening day of the winter session, the Rajya Sabha could not function but the Lok Sabha went through the question hour and transacted some legislative business. On the last 11 working days neither house could work.

The government’s hope that Communications Minister A Raja’s exit will soften the opposition’s stand did not materialise. It does not know how it can push through pending financial and legislative business.

The scam is already under scrutiny at various levels. The Central Bureau of Investigation is looking into it. The Supreme Court is considering petitions seeking a directive to the CBI to prosecute Raja.

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report, which throws light on irregularities which resulted in an estimated loss of more than Rs1,700 billion to the exchequer, is before the Lok Sabha. The public accounts committee (PAC) of the house has to scrutinise it.

Given the political leadership’s ability to influence the course of police investigation, the opposition is reluctant to leave things to the CBI, which is under the prime minister. But it is possible for the Supreme Court to immunise the CBI against pressure by itself taking over supervision of the investigation, as was done earlier in some sensitive cases.

Both PAC and JPC are all-party bodies. The opposition’s preference for the latter appears to be irrational for two reasons. One, while PAC is headed by an opposition member JPC is invariably headed by a ruling party member. Two, No previous JPC probe succeeded in bring culprits to book. Yet the opposition wants JPC since it offers scope for making political capital.

The cost of the games the politicians are playing is high. Media reports have pointed out that disruption of parliament results in a loss of millions of rupees. However, the worst part, however, is not the monetary loss. What is at stake is the future of the parliamentary system. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 29, 2010

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