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They vote, WE gain

It's those who don't bother to go to the poll booth that enjoy the benefits of democracy Prof. James Manor



Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

"THE DEMOCRATIC process in this country offers a disproportionate voice to poor people, even though the results of government policy are not proportionate to the people (poor) who vote." James Manor, the well-known scholar on South Asia, could not have caught the pulse of the Indian election better. This precision is not surprising, though, considering that he has been an observer of the Indian polity for decades now. He also feels that South Africa is, perhaps, the only other country where the poor come out in large numbers to vote.

James Manor, Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, in the city last week, has been looking at the political processes in South Asia, India in particular, for long. His dogged persistence brought him here again to look at the electoral functioning of the world's largest democracy. It is not the divide between the urban and the rural, but the prosperous and the poor — a prosperous, who, unlike in the West, do not come out to vote — that defines the Indian electorate, Prof. Manor says.

Prof. Manor, while clarifying that a rigorous study was required to reach definite conclusions, says that the verdict against the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) does not surprise him. He recalls the overthrow of the ruling party in seven out of the last nine national elections in the country. "It would have been surprising had the ruling party been re-elected."

Prof. Manor attributed this trend to two factors: a certain political awakening among the electorate, one that is becoming not just more aware, but more demanding of the system; and two, a decay in political parties. Parties, he believes, are facing a cash crunch and are not in a position to meet the demands of the electorate. "This is the era of fiscal constraint. There is constraint in the West too, but it works in the extreme here. Without money, you cannot satisfy the electorate. This partially explains why people are unhappy about governments."

The vote against the NDA, he feels, resulted from the "poor performance on policy fronts, governance, and development". A few last-minute disinvestments and removal of the administrative price mechanism for petrol is not serious reform. Where are banking and labour reforms, he asks. And international investment is not as serious as it is made out to be, Prof. Manor asserts.

Prof. Manor feels that the verdict indicates that the Indian electorate is not communalised, despite years of communal mobilisation. The benefits of the Ayodhya campaign, in his view, lasted for around a year. "The Gujarat episode did much to persuade people as also to disgust them. The results show that."

That probably is why he sees a minor change in Indian politics in recent times, specifically in the BJP "taking out Hindu Nationalism from its programme for the time-being". Prof. Manor remarks: "The results this time also indicate that the Right may have to shelve its programme of Hindutva in the years to come." But, interestingly, he does not see an advantage for the Congress either. The lack of internal democracy in the party, arising from factional fights encouraged from the times of Indira Gandhi, in his view, has percolated to state and district levels. The party, he believes, has taken a beating from its own leaders.

Regional results, he observes, were influenced by reforms in the country. The failure of the TDP in Andhra Pradesh, he feels, is far more serious than that of the Congress in Karnataka. "It is ironical. A detailed study is necessary to find out why a Government, which had more money from the World Bank than even the Centre, lost so heavily." The benefits from the money were not seen. The image of Naidu as a man of good governance, clean administration, and fiscal discipline was opposed to the truth, he observes. The myth making, lying, and exaggeration in Karnataka was much less compared to what happens in Andhra Pradesh, he adds. And the Congress defeat in Karnataka was not crushing like the one in AP. While it did well in Bangalore, owing to civic improvements, anti-Congress sentiments in the districts (particularly in North Karnataka, where the resentment against the Mysore region is strong), he feels, went against the party.

Globalisation, Prof. Manor holds, has not made a difference to Indian politics. Economic reforms may have changed the logic of politics a bit, but not the entire political ceiling itself. Indian politics he holds, before and after 1991, when reforms commenced, is similar in that reforms have "not really disrupted Indian society and politics".

The reforms, in his view, are limited and cautious in India compared to other countries. Between 1991 and 1993, reforms resulted from forced circumstances — the economy was in bad shape. But after 1993, reforms have been optional. "You can coerce countries such as Costa Rica or Zambia, not ones as huge as India. Once the crux of the economic crisis was taken care off, you went your own way. Some MNCs wanted changes, a few were done intelligently. But India has not been coerced."

Prof. Manor, who would like to describe himself a Center-Left Social Democrat, believes subsidies have not helped the people it has to. "The money has to be spent on the poor. The reforms have to help them. Not the middle-class."

PRASHANTH G.N.

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