Secret ballots and transparent campaigns

ARUNA ROY and SOWMYA KIDAMBI

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THE Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, at a conference on corruption held in December 2002 in Jaipur, made some remarkably candid statements. He said that workshops, conferences, and even movements to curb sarkari corruption would end up remaining superficial and ineffective until the question of corruption in the electoral process was effectively addressed. He had no hesitation in even admitting that all political parties compromised themselves in matters of funding, which resulted in a high level of corruption in the decision-making process. The statement was of particular significance because it was made by a chief minister in office. Corruption in electoral politics has for long been recognized as a root cause for corrupt practices in governance.

How does a people’s movement take on this obvious but seemingly impossible task? For a small group like the MKSS (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan), the place to begin was at the bottom. In the battle against corruption in development works for instance, the MKSS began its struggle for transparency and the right to information at the village level. One of the most common challenges posed to the organization was to demonstrate the practical feasibility of implementing the right to know. Among others, local sarpanches and public officials had repeatedly challenged the MKSS to perform ‘from within the system.’ The implication was that the transparency demands being made were esoteric and impractical. The requirements of compromise in governance were so great that it was impossible to follow ethical norms.

The many public hearings had exposed not only corrupt practices, but also many of the excuses used to justify such practices. But the criticism of only finding flaws with the system from outside continued. Equally, we were wrestling with the larger question of engaging with electoral politics and its institutions, given the enormous impact that legislative processes have over the lives of millions of voters.

An opaque and unaccountable system has to be made to perform. If the vote determines the composition of those who govern, can movements address the concerns from outside? Or, can there be strategic interventions from within the system? Who will the actors from within be? And can corruption in the electoral process be dealt with through electoral reform alone? It seemed clear to the MKSS that despite many dangers, there was no choice but to learn by doing and to lead by example. The decision to field MKSS candidates in panchayat elections was a consequence of this debate.

 

Panchayats were the obvious site for the MKSS to begin a closer engagement with electoral politics. In some ways the obstacles faced were no less daunting than those at the legislative assembly and parliamentary levels. Within the panchayat raj structure the MKSS had decided that the election to the post of sarpanch, and running an ethically sound panchayat, presented a challenge that had to be faced. For people working to strengthen grassroot democracy, the role of the sarpanch is crucial. What follows are the lessons learnt in the course of this effort.

Panchayats are the foundation on which our electoral politics rests. Every vote is counted and pursued, and vote buying exists in its most blatant form. Those elected become the grassroot vote bank managers for MLAs and MPs and in return for their services are allowed to use development funds to serve their own interests. In Rajasthan, the sarpanch draws an honorarium of only Rs 400 per month. It still does not deter the candidate from contesting for this ‘powerful’ post and spending close to a lakh of rupees to get elected.

 

It was as a part of this process that the first MKSS experiment of direct intervention in electoral politics was initiated in 2000. Three candidates contested for the post of sarpanch and, much to everyone’s amazement, two of them won. Both Narayan from Kushalpura panchayat, Rajsamand district and Tej Singh, Todgarh panchayat, Ajmer district won against severe odds. There was a self-imposed ceiling on election expenses and norms on canvassing for votes were insisted upon. The basis of the electoral campaign was a manifesto that the MKSS had prepared and circulated in the panchayats.

The manifesto aimed to convey the issues and priorities of the candidates; it also shared all relevant information to enable the people to monitor the electoral campaign of the candidate. It declared that the candidate would not spend more than Rs 1000, that no liquor or jaggery would be distributed, no votes would be bought by any other means, either directly through money transfers or even by sending a vehicle to ensure that people come to vote. The manifesto also promised that if elected, the sarpanch would guarantee transparency and the decisions made by the panchayat would be fully participatory. No bribe would be offered/accepted for works to be sanctioned or for any other rights or privileges to officials in the panchayat samiti and other government structures. Above all, the sarpanch would be transparent and accountable, not indulge in corrupt practices, and subject himself/herself to regular public audit.

 

The moral power of a transparent election campaign is enormous. There is instant communication with people. Honestly and seriously conducted, a transparent election campaign leads not only to offering a political alternative but in forging an alternative politics. By demonstrating such commitment, the links between political action and ethics come into focus, thereby changing the tenor of the whole campaign. The fact that transparency has become a buzz word, repeatedly used at all levels of political campaigning through slogans and charters and of course electoral promises, indicates just how important it is to even pay lip service to such concepts to establish credibility. The danger, of course, is that the terms get devalued, and people turn so cynical about ‘politics’ that ‘only the corrupt can succeed in politics’ may becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

While this was certainly a problem that MKSS candidates faced as they took their unusual campaign to the people, it was apparent that the consistent right to information efforts in the area added credibility to their promise that they would be transparent in their campaigns and in office. ‘Hamara paisa, hamara hisab’ (our money, our accounts) is still a major preoccupation of the masses who live on the edge of poverty, and to apply the slogan of the right to information campaign to election campaigns injected a new and unknown factor for all candidates.

‘There was a group of 25-30 people from different villages, including a few from other panchayats. Sometimes urban outsiders also tagged along. There were times when we wondered what people thought about us or what the reactions would be. A dholak party (a name given to us in derision), we went with music and songs as always (this time with a mobile mike), making our way into a village, singing songs made popular by years of struggle. In some villages the songs raised people’s curiosity, and they flocked to look at this unusual and ingenious form of canvassing. Where they knew the MKSS, familiarity drew an interested and nostalgic response.

‘People would come out wondering where the tempo or jeep or other modes of transport were hidden. They were surprised to learn that the candidate had actually walked! Women canvassers were a novelty for even if it was a reserved seat for women, it was men who canvassed. In this case there was greater excitement for the MKSS women candidates appeared in public without the ghoonghat. Their public speeches made them stand out. There was no stench of liquor on the breath of the men and none of the usual music-dubbed cassette prachaar slogans through a microphone… first a couple of lines of a song… Meri chatri ke neeche aaja, kyon bheegi re Kamala khadi khadi…aap ki apni lok priya umeedwaar, sevabhavi, yuva, karmath… Kamala… Kamala… Kamala… all echoing through the mike that would at times buzz …or engine ki seeti mein maro man dole …aapka apna lokpriya umeedwar…’ (excerpt from campaign diary).

The candidates committed themselves to campaigning without the use of vehicles, canvassing from village to village on foot. It was also decided that the modes used would be the simplest and least expensive. Narayan spent Rs 1600 and Teju less than Rs 800. The MKSS committed to pay its elected candidates the statutory minimum wage to work full-time for the panchayat. That these two sarpanches kept their promise to the people and worked on the basis of the manifesto, was vindicated in the special ward (sabha) meetings that were organized to carry out the people’s audit at the end of their tenure. They were conducted like the MKSS public hearings where all information was circulated and read out aloud in public. People were asked to verify and testify on all the works in the panchayat in the presence of the sarpanch and independent observers.

 

The engagement with electoral politics has long been debated among the people’s movements and non-party political groups. The concern has got sharper in the last couple of decades, with economic liberalization and militarism further eroding people’s own choices. Ironically, such decisions are taken by democratically elected governments whose arms are twisted, or whose ideology leads them to implement policies designed at international levels. No matter how impeccable the integrity, and total the commitment of the groups, the institutions of electoral democracy exercise control over the decision-making processes, and those who occupy positions of power have outwitted, overcome, and worked against people’s interests.

People’s battles and victories have been marginalized by the domination of what local people call ‘vote-politics’. Many who believed in the process of engagement felt that if direct interventions have to be made, they are best done through structures at the ground level, where non-party groups are at their strongest. So, elections to the panchayat and municipalities assume greater significance. In this engagement the need for transparency as part of the electoral process is vital. From the time of nomination to voting, transparency facilitates two major functions. It educates voters about the need to know what is happening in their name and emphasises, through an honest electoral process or the lack of it, the importance of transparency, accountability and justice as a priority of governance.

 

Using its earlier experience as a benchmark, and with a better understanding of engagement with electoral politics and governance at the panchayat level, the MKSS once again decided to contest elections in January 2005. Eleven candidates stood for the post of sarpanch in as many panchayats in the four districts of Rajsamand, Pali, Bhilwara and Ajmer. The primary objective was not so much to win as to mark the larger presence of candidates committed to ethical politics. The intention was to begin a debate on ethical and transparent politics at the base of the political pyramid, which it was hoped would slowly but surely impact politics at all levels. During the RTI campaign, the MKSS had seen a vindication of the participatory democratic process. The initial interventions for RTI were made in the remote villages of central Rajasthan. These processes combined with other grassroot efforts in different parts of the country to create a larger political demand at the national level. Similarly, could not the lessons learnt from these campaigns and people’s movements be used to impact the political process itself?

For instance, the pad yatras forced many opposition candidates to walk instead of zipping around in ramshackle jeeps blaring incoherent noise. It also forced some of the women candidates to personally canvass, despite hiding behind their ghoonghats. It was a great opportunity to place opinions and socio-political principles before an audience keenly watching, listening, and evaluating candidates against their stated positions.

‘…In Lotiyana panchayat, when we were sitting in a baithak to mourn the death of a villager, the local zila parishad member arrived to appeal for votes for his wife. He used the word dukan (shop) for both the BJP and the Congress. His entire speech was, "Every party today runs its own enterprise. I was earlier with a shop called the Congress but after having tasted the wares it had to offer I went to another shop called the BJP and tasted what it had to offer. I realized that when the time came to allot tickets people like me who have worked for the cause of the labourers and peasants were sidelined. I, therefore, returned to the older shop. And now my wife, your sister or mother, whatever you would prefer to call her, is contesting and I hope all of you will vote for her. Though I will continue working for you, she will open the door at whatever time of the day or night that you people knock to ask for help."

‘I was horrified to learn that the man had come canvassing for his wife. I was proud that Anshi had not only canvassed for herself, but had spoken in front of a gathering of men with the ghoonghat substantially removed. Also, that Lakshmi had canvassed in Sammeliya (her sasural) minus the ghoonghat and spoke openly and fearlessly in the villages. At least these women have managed to make a social impact along with their political debut’ (excerpt from campaign diary).

‘…In Lakshmi’s case her family made it clear that they would not participate in the canvassing because they had already committed themselves to Ratanlal Jain, the BJP candidate. The dalits of the panchayat were aligned with Pratap Singh, the candidate who was seen as a Congress man. The Rawats thus decided to canvass for the BJP candidate to keep the dalits out of the picture. Lakshmi came from the Rawat community, but was seen as a supporter of the dalit cause. Some years earlier, there had been an incident related to a dalit groom being asked to get off his horse during a marriage ceremony. The Sangathan had come out in open support of the dalit family, and there were still cases against the upper caste groups in the village. Nevertheless, Lakshmi was categorically advised by all groups that since it was a general seat there was no reason for her to contest. Why don’t you contest a seat reserved for women, was the standard response she got when she went canvassing’ (excerpt from campaign diary).

‘In Vijaypura panchayat, the incumbents nomination was rejected on the basis of a no-dues certificate that she had got from the panchayat even as the panchayat samiti register showed dues up to Rs 1.5 lakh. She had been running a free kitchen in her house (Ram Rasoda) where people would come and eat meat and drink liquor. The minute her husband heard that her nomination had been rejected, he rushed home to shut down the kitchen chasing away guests and "valuable voters" in the middle of a meal!’ (excerpt from campaign diary).

 

In the eleven panchayats where MKSS candidates contested, and in the surrounding dozen or more panchayats, its campaign determined the issues and pattern of public discourse. Candidates copied the MKSS manifesto, promising transparency and accountability, employment guarantee, minimum wages and even transparency in election accounts. It was interesting that even the most crooked still tried to keep to the MKSS manifesto in principle! Initially, in some panchayats it seemed as if election expenses and malpractice might be brought under control. However, as feared, this did not last. As the date for voting approached, deals were struck and the traditional vote machine sprung into action. We had now to consider how much of the power to influence the mainstream electoral process was dependent on losing or winning itself.

‘It amused me to see three parchas in Sammeliya panchayat, Rajsamand district that had been copied from the one that the MKSS had circulated for Lakshmi. In Lotiyana panchayat, Ajmer district, a woman who contested against Anchi (the MKSS candidate) came with a group of women and walked throughout the first day of her canvassing!’ (excerpt from campaign diary).

‘…While Shankarji and the group with him was canvassing in Kishenpura panchayat, in one of the villages an old woman heard the sound of the microphone and came rushing out and said, "We don’t want your liquor or your gur, take it away." One of the team members joked with her and said, "Oh well, since we have now brought it, what do we do?" "…Throw it away, we don’t want it," was her response. Shankarji explained that they were joking and it was not for buying votes but to ensure that people voted sensibly and for the right person. Placated, she brought people out from every house and said, "Listen to them and see what they have to offer!"’ (excerpt from campaign diary).

 

Many different factors decided the fate of the candidates. It was not merely the enormous expense of the campaign – on liquor, jaggery and vote money that was distributed, nor only the vehicles that were sent to ferry people to cast their vote. Traditional samikarans, bartering caste votes between villages and panchayats, old rivalries and muscle power, the polarization of the poor and the rich – every vote is accounted for. The traditional vote bank managers can trace the trajectory of every vote. It is a secret ballot where most know the vote pattern and often trace each individual vote, with dire consequences for the individuals concerned, the development of the area, and for democracy itself.

‘The night that the results were announced in Vijaypura, I heard the elation in the voices of the people while they shouted the usual jay jay kar. I rejoiced in Kalu’s victory; an affirmation of our belief that he would win. Kalu has been involved in local politics for many years, was a ward panch for five years and had silently worked his way up to this comprehensive victory. He was clearly supported by the poor in the panchayat. Eventually, even the lure of money, the Ram Rasoda, the gur and the liquor, did not help his opponents. In fact, there were many voters who came in his opponents jeeps, but voted for Kalu. When the tide turns, so do the people. There were some who even drank the liquor the others provided, but said, "jeetega bhai jeetega, Kaluram jeetega"’ (excerpt from campaign diary).

‘…I had just come from Sangawas panchayat where Hiralal, the MKSS supported candidate, had lost by 350 votes. Both Hira and Kalu are dalits who contested in a general category. Hiralal had contested for the first time. He was unknown and had not really been seen as a potential candidate. This was obvious even while we canvassed. However, because he was supported by the MKSS, he came second with 450 votes. It was a surprise to many, as the non-dalit majority had run a caste-based campaign against him. The result was definitely a sign of the positive impact of his campaign’ (excerpt from campaign diary).

‘…There were nevertheless many tragic-comic situations in the days after the results were announced. In Baghmal panchayat, Ajmer district, a young man from Teelakheda won by 1100 votes. He had spent a fair amount of money too, but not as much as his opponent who had been in this game of politics for much longer. Once the results were announced and his opponent knew that he had lost, the defeated candidate’s self-righteous anger against the people could not be contained. He felt that he had been taken for a ride by the public. The enraged man climbed on to the roof of his house and yelled out aloud: "You thieves, you drank my liquor and ate the meat I sent. You also took the money and the jaggery. And you still didn’t vote for me. I am going to settle scores." His abusive outburst carried on late into the night…’ (excerpt from campaign diary).

 

The rules of the State Election Commission were flouted with abandon. Even those in the know did not bother to report the cases to the authorities, but the numbers who did not know the rules at all was much larger. Worse still was the interpretation of the law in Rajasthan that only counted expenses after the symbol was distributed, allowing candidates the full freedom to spend before they were awarded the symbols. The time lag between allocation of symbols and voting is a mere 24 hours. Few candidates can exceed the ceiling specified in the rules in the time at their disposal. Such myopic rules and a manipulative electoral process are part of the reason why blatant violations of the spirit of electoral law takes place.

The six hour period of official canvassing leads to other problems. Imagine the colossal task of taking the symbol to every village in a panchayat, maybe flung over a large area, without time and appropriate modes to convey the information. Comic situations arise when candidates and supporters bang on doors, wake up people, with one following the other, to talk about cycles, cupboards, aeroplane, cup plate, bricks, baskets… and so on. The poor voter is forced to listen, bewildered and bemused.

‘Teaching people the symbol was not easy because there were sometimes up to 10 candidates in each panchayat standing for sarpanch. It was sheer madness. In the six hours of official campaigning, people had not only to learn the candidate’s symbol, but also decide for whom to vote. Under such circumstances the exchange of money, or caste loyalties become obvious factors determining the choice. Who had designed such an irrational system? Or was there in fact a hidden logic to it – ensuring that PR institutions begin with corruption and confusion, and then promote it. The most basic level of governance fails to ensure transparency!’ (excerpt from campaign diary).

 

There is little doubt that the intervention in the panchayat election process had an impact on the campaigning in the area, with important implications for governance. Winning and losing are the most obvious indicators of the success and acceptability of a campaign. But even while looking at those obvious indicators, it would be myopic to not understand the other effects of this endeavour.

‘The BJP MLA who came to Sammeliya panchayat was forced to say, "If anyone gives you liquor or gur he/she is making a mistake. Vote for an honest person. Don’t sell your vote." I think that was an impact. I also think that the fact people used manifestos similar to those that were distributed by the MKSS was an impact. That people sat at the chauraha or the chai ki dukaan and discussed setting up vigilance committees in the panchayat to oversee the working of the panchayat was an impact. If they discussed the entire concept of transparency and how it eventually impacts their lives, that was again a big impact. The fact that the MKSS was and is perceived as a political threat in the area has been an impact’ (excerpt from campaign diary).

 

There is a need, however, to make people internalize that all forms of big and small bribes for a vote will eventually affect their own lives. Otherwise, one moment of weakness or frenzy and they gamble away their power and squander their rights. The next five years will have to be spent educating people once again about the immense power of the vote. Slogans such as ‘Gur ki dali khaoge paanch saal pachtaoge’, ‘daru ki thaili piyoge paanch saal pachtaoge’, ‘kheerpuri khaoge paanch saal pachtaoge’, ‘gaadi mein baithkar aaoge’, paanch saal pachtaoge’, communicate well in an election campaign. But there is need to move beyond catchy sloganeering. The day slogans translate into a way of life, the face and fate of the panchayats and its politics will change.

The tough lesson we have learnt is that transparency and ethics in themselves do not necessarily ensure electoral victory. Most honest candidates lose the first election. Nevertheless, it is also true that without a mass campaign for ethics and transparency no honest candidate can win. And without honesty in politics, the masses cannot be mobilized. In this, the success of the RTI campaign to demand transparency from government and democratic institutions has made it possible to incorporate it in the electoral process also.

The processes at the panchayat level can be taken up in the legislature and parliamentary elections only if there is a strong enough democratic movement to push this into public debate and acceptance. Many of the current methods of vote canvassing will have to be questioned and different kinds of candidates persuaded to stand. Political ideologies will have to be connected to questions of public ethics. Not the least, the issue of participation in the electoral process will have to be viewed as important and non-negotiable for the general good. New formations and alliances will have to be forged. Though formidable, this is not an impossible task.

 

In the very process of enforcing transparency at the panchayat level we encounter its limits. Transparency in the electoral process will have to translate into the shaping of transparency in democratic organizations in making the government and state accountable. This dialectic is important if the processes initiated by elections are to become an intrinsic part of the way the country is governed.

Nor indeed is it just a question of electoral reform. As we have seen, dynamic and even radical chief election commissioners can only facilitate the process. The socio-political dynamics will have to be activated to push it into both the realm of mainstream consciousness and the realization of individual stakes in the process. What we see is the beginning of an impact on democratic politics and its transformation; an induction of common sense and justice.

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