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Ideology is dead

All politicians are not low-lifes. Many are hardworking, decent and honest.

But enough of them are sleazy enough to remind me how they have schemed their way around the new rules and the supposed checks and balances that have tried to ensure Indian democracy remains effective and fair.


Just take the drama that accompanied this week's Rajya Sabha elections. In Himachal Pradesh, where the Congress has a substantial majority, it seemed clear that its candidate, the noted and respected lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi, would win.


   But Singhvi and his allies always had their doubts. Why, they asked, had the BJP put up a candidate who had no chance of winning? Obviously, the BJP knew something the Congress didn’t. In other words: the Singhvi camp wondered if their opponents were confident of buying or otherwise ‘persuading’ enough Congress MLAs to vote against Singhvi and for the BJP.


   I thought the Singhvi camp was being pessimistic or unduly cautious. But when the votes were counted on Tuesday, it turned out that they were absolutely right. The BJP won over enough Congress MLAs to even the score. Ultimately, the tie was settled by a draw of lots, which Singhvi lost.


   How can anyone lose a Rajya Sabha election in a house where the Congress has 40 seats and the BJP only 25?


   Well, the phrase “money power” may offer a clue.


   Something similar happened in Uttar Pradesh, where several Samajwadi Party MLAs defied the party whips and voted for a BJP candidate. Even in Karnataka, the one state where the Congress has competent political managers, there appears to have been some dodgy cross-voting, but this time in favour of a Congress candidate.


   The logic of electoral democracy suggests that there should be no cross-voting. And for many years after Independence, there was, in fact, very little cross-voting. Then, money entered the picture. Rich people decided that the Rajya Sabha was a club they would like to join. Accordingly, they began buying up MLAs to smooth their way in.


   In those days, it was hard to tell exactly who voted for whom, so the millionaires had no difficulty exploiting the secret ballot.


   In 1998, when the Rajya Sabha seemed in danger of becoming just another club that every sleazy billionaire could buy entry into, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government decided that it was time for a change in the rules.


   In India, we follow a two-fold principle. When it comes to voting in direct elections where the entire population is involved—say, elections for MPs, MLAs, corporators, etc.—we insist on a secret ballot. But in legislative chambers, where Bills are to be voted on, we do not insist on secrecy. The voting is open.


   The Rajya Sabha election fell halfway between the two kinds of votes. It elected MPs but the electoral college was not based on universal franchise: only MLAs could vote.


"But judging by this week’s secret auction of votes, it looks as though we overestimated the dignity and self-respect of some of our legislators."

   The Vajpayee government decided that perhaps voting for Rajya Sabha candidates had more in common with voting on Bills than with general elections. So, the secret ballot was abolished and voting became public.


   Many liberals objected to this. The late Kuldip Nayar argued that the abolition of the secret ballot was wrong and filed a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.


   I rarely disagreed with Kuldip Nayar on issues of importance. But in this case, I thought he was wrong. If MLAs had to vote openly, I believed they would be less blatant about greedily accepting money in exchange for their votes. The Supreme Court agreed and the voting for the Rajya Sabha elections stopped being secret.


   Ah, I said to myself. We have now ended the menace of money-fuelled Rajya Sabha elections. So, I imagine, did Arun Jaitley and most of the others in the Vajpayee government who had argued for this change.


   For a while, it seemed we were right. But judging by this week’s secret auction of votes, it looks as though we overestimated the dignity and self-respect of some of our legislators. It has now got to the stage where some politicians will sell their votes, even if they know that they are going to be found out. They simply don’t care what people think. For many of them, the word ‘shameless’ does not exist in the dictionary.


   To be fair, it is rarely as simple as money alone. Often it is money plus something else. After all, once the MLAs are publicly identified, they have to make alternative arrangements for the future. For some of them, greed is hidden away in talk of a revolt. They voted against their party’s candidate because they did not like the chief minister, is one common refrain. For others, it is simply an opportunity to jump into bed with another party or to bring down their own government. This may lead to consequences (disqualifications, etc.) but hey! They are now rich so what do they care?


   In Uttar Pradesh, an original reason for cross-voting has been offered this week. Some MLAs suggested that they cross-voted because they were prevented from attending the Pran Pratishtha ceremony at the Ram temple in Ayodhya.


   What does all of this prove?


   Well, for one, it demonstrates that many of India’s politicians are so motivated by greed—for money, for power, for office, etc.—that they will do anything at all that advances their interests.


   It also proves that ideology is dead. Politicians don’t care what principles they espoused when they first got elected. Make them a better offer and they will jump ship. It’s less an ideological battle than a livestock market.


   In the latest case, at least, the current political climate has made a difference. So strong is the perception that the BJP will sweep North India in the next general election that many MLAs see no point in hanging around and being lonely opposition voices when they can be part of the winning side.


   Plus, they get to be rich too!


   This perception is not so strong in South India, which is why the Karnataka Rajya Sabha election went the non-BJP way.


   You know democracy is in trouble when even before the general election is called, members of the opposition are inclined to take the bundles of money offered by the ruling side and run. As the saying goes, we get the governments we deserve.


   But what it does not say is that we also get an opposition that no country deserves.



Posted On: 28 Feb 2024 08:00 PM
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