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India Shuts Down for Election Time

By M.D. Nalapat

March 24, 2009

The Indian economy may be seeing its growth rate fall from 9 percent to 5 percent or less. A couple of thousand innocent lives may have been lost in terror attacks since the Manmohan Singh government took office in 2004. Transport and energy infrastructure may have become even worse, even as millions of citizens pay out up to 70 percent of their total income in direct and indirect taxes. Graft and administrative sloth may have increased in inverse proportion to the speed of judicial pronouncements in a system where court cases usually take several generations to get decided. No matter. From March 2 to the expected swearing-in of a new government at the end of May, India has once again relapsed to "election mode," where effective governance has passed from the elected representatives of the people to the Election Commission, three former bureaucrats who have given to themselves dictatorial power during this period. This has been done, of course, in the name of "conducting a fair election" and hence "safeguarding democracy."

Because of the conservatism of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a 78-year old former bureaucrat who has presided over a policy of increasingly high interest and tax rates since 2005 that has caused the economy to encounter turbulence well before the U.S. financial crisis hit in March last year, the shutting down of the country that lasts throughout a general election can be said to have begun on February 16, when the 2009-10 Interim Budget was presented. Despite the inability of policy makers to breach the double-digit growth barrier needed to wipe out poverty in a generation, the government has declined to implement a policy of reducing taxes and encouraging a return to the low interest rate regime of the five years previous to 2005. Even an opportunity for innovative measures such as the presentation of the 2009-10 Interim Budget was passed by. The budget that was presented and passed by the 77-year old acting finance minister was so devoid of reflationary measures that it sparked off an immediate and steep decline in both business confidence as well as in stock prices

The present global economic crisis has come in handy for Manmohan Singh's government, allowing it to draw attention away from its misadventures such as boosting the fiscal deficit to a near nine percent level - more than three times what was inherited from the previous government. Almost the whole of this increase was caused by rising government salaries and "welfare" schemes that most closely resemble the "digging a hole in the ground and then filling it in" early WPA programs of America during the Great Depression.

Unlike in the American case, where public administration never reached the depths seen in India, more than 70 percent of New Delhi's expenditure on such programs has gone not to the intended beneficiaries - the rural poor - but to middlemen, almost all of whom naturally are bureaucrats and politicians. The blame for this policy-created deficit has been attributed to the "global financial crisis," even as the Manmohan Singh team avoids policies that would mitigate the effects of the global slowdown on the Indian economy. Now that the 2009 general elections have been declared, its already slow pace has become a crawl, courtesy the Election Commission.

Since the 1990s, the Election Commission (set up in 1950 to oversee polls) has enforced a "Code of Conduct" that acts to emasculate the functioning of government. In its 35 pages, the election "Code of Conduct" prohibits the taking of any decision of the government that may involve a "financial grant in any form or promises thereof." It also bars fresh appointments. The purpose behind these and numerous other restrictions is to prevent a government from attempting any last-minute gifting of sweeteners to the electorate. In practice,the Code has led to a slowing down of decisions including those vital to the national interest, and to a policy pause that lasts as long as three months. This is damaging at any time, but much more so in the situation of the current economic and security crises besetting India at present. The interesting point about this administrative lockdown is that it is not based on the Constitution of India or on law, but rests purely on a decision taken by the Election Commission. Indeed, the Election Commission has even arbitrarily taken for itself the power to transfer and even suspend officials at will, in the name of "weeding out those favoring the ruling party." No democracy in the world allows a trio of superannuated officials to take over country's administration during the election process, except India.

Small wonder then that political parties now seek to ensure that only those retired bureaucrats that are loyal to them be appointed to the Election Commission. Take as an example the Congress Party and appointed Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla. Both he as well as his wife, Rupika, have been close personal friends of Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi since the 1960s and, perhaps coincidentally, his numerous decisions as Election Commissioner led to the previous Chief Election Commissioner, N. Gopalaswamy, sending a letter to the President of India recommending that Chawla be removed because of his "bias towards the ruling Congress Party." Not surprisingly, President (Ms.) Pratibha Patil, a Congress appointee herself, rejected Gopalaswamy's recommendation, clearing the way for Chawla to take office as chief election commissioner on April 20, the day the hapless Gopalaswamy retired.

Were the Code of Conduct introduced by the Election Commission to be followed to the letter, Indian elections would have all the drama and suspense of those that take place in North Korea. The Election Commission prohibits candidates and political parties from "aggravating any existing differences" between citizens, a catchall phrase that can net the most anodyne of speeches. Further, there should be no "organizing of demonstrations or picketing" during the election period, nor "processions that cause a hindrance to citizens" (as most do). As for the verbal jousting of campaigning, the superannuated Election Commission bureaucrats decreed that any criticism of an opponent "should be confined to policies and programs" and that there should be "no criticism of private lives." Gary Hart would have approved.

Further, the Election Commission bans any "unverified allegations or distortions." In other words, only charges established through conviction in a court of law can be made by a political rival against her or his opponent. Naturally, opinion surveys have been banned by the Election Commission during the weeks-long polling process, for fear that "these may influence the voter." Some had imagined that this indeed was at the core of any democratic political campaign!

The Election Commission of India knows better. In common with the entire bureaucratic edifice of "independent" India, which shares with its former British colonial master a contempt for the discretion and thinking capabilities of the average Indian. The Election Commission clearly sees the 800 million electors of the world's most populous democracy as being unfit to intelligently work their way through a diet of open discourse and media coverage. Winston Churchill, who considered the population of India to be only a shade better than primates (as he stated several times on record), would have concurred.

Amazingly, thus far neither political parties nor the much-hyped "civil society" in India has seriously exerted itself to challenge such undemocratic restrictions on free speech and assembly. Most political leaders in India, several of whom have shown their mastery of finance by jumping from penury to great wealth within a generation (or, more accurately, a term in office) are delighted at the banning of "personal" attacks made on the basis of "unverified" allegations. While Chawla's partiality to Sonia Gandhi is no secret, it is perhaps entirely accidental that the only high-profile case of a political leader being brought to book for "irresponsible" campaigning during this election season has been 29-year old Varun Gandhi, a cousin of Sonia Gandhi's son and political heir Rahul. Given the importance of bloodline in Indian politics, only Varun has the potential to derail the dynastic ambitions of the 37-year old heir apparent. Presumably, the other Gandhi sibling's travails with the Election Commission must be leading to emotions other than sorrow at 10 Janpath, the government-provided palatial residence of the ruling branch of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty.

The consequence of the Election Commission-imposed straitjacket has been to make Indian election campaigns almost as tame as the media, which has almost always refrained from exposing details of the financial standing and personal lives of the very powerful. Those editors who seek more transparency are swiftly shown the door by nervous owners. Although Indian politics is presumed to have "rival" parties, the reality is that the top leaders of one are protected by the other when the wheel of fortune turns from them in a poll. Thus, the Italian national at the core of an international scandal about (proven) bribes paid by a Swedish company to get an arms contract in the 1980s, Ottavio Quattrocchi, was helped to escape from both India in 1993 and from Malaysia a decade later thanks to the indulgence shown to him by successive Congress and BJP governments. Indian democracy has evolved into a cosy and exclusive club whose members privately protect each other while publicly sparring.

The Election Commission's success in muzzling debate in India and in shutting down much of the government's functioning during the election process can be contrasted with its failure to enforce the spending limits on a parliamentary campaign, which range from around $10,000 to $50,000 for each candidate depending on the state. In fact,the campaign expenditure varies from $2 million to as much as $6 million, the average being around $3 million. Because any expenditure above the legal limit is illegal,the extra expenses are in cash, usually collected from unsavory sources looking for protection from the police.

Had these absurd limits been dispensed with and campaign funding made transparent there would not have been the need for each elected representative to begin his career in office with the submission of an affidavit to the Election Commission that claims total expenditures less than, in some cases, an hour's worth of campaigning such as the organizing of a mass rally. Although the Election Commission is aware that its fiat on election spending gets violated with impunity, none of the retired bureaucrats who are selected to the Commission have thus far sought to do away with this unenforceable law that creates a mafia and a source of illegal cash the way the alcohol prohibition does in the state of Gujarat, and did in the United States during the period of the speakeasies.

Collecting campaign funding transparently has a chemistry and an impact very different from money which goes unrecorded and is therefore collected from opaque channels. Elections have become an opportunity for the "havala" operators who fund both politics as well as terrorism in India to build up their stable of VVIP protectors, all the better to conduct their operations without the police ruining the party.

The Indian practice of making illegal more than 95 percent of the actual cost of an election campaign has created a systemic vulnerability that has been useful to those active in the linked trade of narcotics and terrorism. Because this is the age of the "Rotten Boroughs," a ticket to contest the parliamentary elections can be had for a price, sometimes a "reasonable" figure such as $1 million but otherwise - as in the much commented-upon case of a mining baron in Karnataka last year - can reach $10 million, paid to the party bigwigs to clinch the nomination. Small wonder that those who may accurately be defined as security threats use the system to ensure the infiltration both of themselves as well as their toadies in the electoral process

This series of essays published by JINSA may give the impression of a country under siege by itself. Hardly. India is developing several self-correcting mechanisms that are slowly and painfully resulting in the expansion of the space enjoyed by genuinely democratic elements. What the international community - and in particular India's civilizational partners in the West - need to look beyond is the superficial sophistication of the "Bold and the Beautiful" people that occupy the pricier parts of the country's cities and into a closer examination of the actual origins of such wealth and privilege so that they may give support not to the "problem people" but to those who are the "solutions."

In the case of neighboring Pakistan, the West has spent more than half a century buttressing those very individuals and institutions responsible for the country's slide towards Talibanization. That disaster must not get repeated in India.

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