मंगलवार, 11 दिसंबर 2007

Goa Elections : Looking beyond

Goa Elections : Looking beyond
--Leena Mehendale

When I received the letter from Election Commission in May 2002 informing that I was to go as one of the observers for the imminent Assembly elections in Goa, I did not expect my experience there to be any different from my earlier experiences of elections, either in Maharashtra, Bihar, Orissa or Rajasthan. Elections are elections, so how will one be different from another! But I was mistaken in more than one ways.

This being my first ever visit to Goa, I kept telling myself that I should have an open mind about whatever I may see there. From the very first visible contact even before the Jet flight landed, Goa was an enchanting place, lush green and deep blue, a combination of trees and the ocean. And the people were also different. Almost total literacy, high levels of education, no begging, no child labour, highly empowered women, no gender discrimination, no abject poverty, no economic stratification of society, these were some instantly visible characteristics of the people.

Something must be said about the property rights of women in Goa before every thing else. The Portuguese rulers, when they came, started compiling existing legal practices and codified them into Law. Under their rule of nearly 400 years, Goa had uniform civil code. This and other laws have continued here even after liberation in 1961 and Goans can be rightfully proud of them. Under the property rights, the girl child gets equal share in parent’s property just as her brother would get. After marriage, the properties of both the bride and bridegroom are merged and they get equal right over all the property. The official property registers are immediately modified so as to show the rights of both. This offers complete security to women against being driven out of her husband’s house. Dowry system is virtually absent, hence dowry deaths or other dowry related crimes are practically nil. There is no discrimination against the girl child, no cases of female infanticide or foeticide.

Women could be seen in all types of public activity, riding scooters, roaming freely, managing shops, and even running a ‘bhelpuri thela’. The general crime rate in Goa is low and women do not have to worry much about their physical safety. The only thick and big black spot in this encouraging picture was the information that Goa has a worrisome rate of tourism prostitution and the problems associated with it.

As I proceeded with my touring as an election observer, the political profile started getting clearer and I could not help making comparison with the conditions in other states. As far as election related crimes or violence is concerned, Goa is to be rated as the state with lowest number of crimes. There was no threat of booth capturing, no voter intimidation, no ear–piercing loud-speakers. A meagre two or three vehicles were captured for carrying sticks and soda water bottles whereas in some other states one would have expected them carrying swords, chains, rifles and even home-made bombs! And yet…….

Not muscle power but money power was the key. Major cities and news papers were buzz with talks of allurement of influencial voters with gifts and alcoholic drinks. Unlike in Assembly constituencies elsewhere in the country, the number of voters in a Goa constituency is only twenty thousand on an average. Voter turnout is around sixty five per cent. Thus anyone who can manage about seven thousand votes is in a comfortable, winning position. Stakes are high and not every voter needs to be paid. So the going rates were quite high. Women were to be coaxed with sarees. On the eve of polling, police held a couple of jeeps carrying sarees worth a few lakhs. Although this does not prove any thing and the police finally let the jeeps off, it shows the possibility.

This has baffled me a lot. We have always deplored that we have a large proportion of illiterate and poverty-struck voters, who were therefore amenable to the allurement of money and gifts, thus bringing down the quality of our democracy. This argument does not hold for Goa. Then why?

The justification provided was that once elected, the candidates were going to make money in many folds through dubious methods. So what was wrong in sharing the loot? Not everyone, but those who accepted the gratification, had this argument. A friend implores me not to be so critical of Goans; after all, well to do people with fancy cars and mobiles have participated in looting vacant houses in Gujrat after Godhra incidence! Personally, I feel that this is a very dangerous mentality. I also feel that all the programs such as karodpati and khelo India which encourage people for easy money are adding to this tendency of looting or sharing the loot.

Despite all this, majority of the voters had their independent opinion, and were serious about maintaining secrecy of vote. It was nice to see people queuing up even before eight in the morning to finish their voting early and be free to go back to daily routine. They were not going to wait for offer of money to be made during later part of the day! Or, were they paid the night before ?

The campaigning revolved round three issues, namely unemployment, good governance and defections. A large number of youth, apparently unemployed, took part in campaigning. It is my assessment that if the problem of unemployment is not solved, future elections in Goa will also have more physical violence as in other parts of the country. Election offered some temporary engagement to a lot of youth and one newspaper even commented that there should be elections every year so that young people get some employment.

Present level of corruption in Goa does not affect people directly in their day- to- day life. It occurs in cutting away forests, dubious urban permissions, disposal of community land, mining permissions etc where people have no immediate stakes.

I spoke to some candidates who agreed that the election expenditure was much beyond the prescribed limit of three lakhs. This was easily adjustable. Money that could be claimed as “spent by party” or “by friends and relatives” was not to be shown as election expense. It was not even to be reported.

I recall that when the Election Commission first started the practice of appointing election observers and became strict about the expenditure of the candidate, people raised many doubts about political parties not showing these expenditures properly in their accounts. I had replied, with my indomitable faith in administration that the Election Commission would simultaneously appoint Central Observers who would call for all reports of party expenditure and look into party accounts. But this did not happen. This lacuna gives a chance to candidates to exceed the limit and claim that the party has incurred the expenses.

Touring Goa, where other election related crimes or irregularities are at minimal, I could not help thinking that while as observers we were concentrating on such tiny issues as removing posters near the polling booths, more important issues like financial influence on voters, sale and purchase of members' loyalties, their defections and infinitely higher opportunities of indulging in corruption were not being tackled.

There was gossipy story of a candidate who wanted the ticket from a particular party. He was asked to pay a huge sum. He asked - "What for? With spending half of that amount I can win the seat even by defeating your party candidate!"
The story goes that he did not get the ticket from that party. He nevertheless contested the election & won. As the final outcome turned into a "hung assembly", he was offered a price for his support. He retorted - what gives you the power to offer me a price? It is because of your ministerial chair. Well then, make me a minister - of such & such important ministry, where I will take care of myself!"

We are all familiar with this and similar types of stories. They disturb us with their straightforward logic. Imagine a candidate officially allowed to spend five lakhs for his election. Even if his spending remains within the limit, what will be his first priority after becoming a member or a minister? Obviously to get his money back, suitably multiplied. And the only route for that is corruption.

We do not seem to resent it at all. Even though this means that the money is going from our pockets. Or, the money is being obtained from foreign donors and sources which the country (that is, us) is repaying by compromising our industrial well being, our freedom of action over crucial issues, our intellectual property rights and so on. We do not resent this all.

The current election process in India has given rise to two major problems. One is corruption - coupled with muscle power, violence, intimidation (except in some parts as in Goa). Perhaps even bigger evil is the culture of divisions which is getting promoted by our election processes. For the purpose of wooing the voter and winning, the candidates and parties are forced more and more to think in terms of our religion, caste, province, language etc. Members of Assembly and Parliament focus attention on small geographical area, which is their constituency, and cannot put the country's problem above themselves and their vote bank. National parties who have a responsibility to think of the national problems are busy trying to save their governments from defection. A time has come to debate as to what are the alternatives to the present system -- alternatives, which will save us from corruption and divisive tendencies.

Bringing in good and principled people in politics is the answer. Yet, how to do that is the question. It is necessary that our systems and processes support the honest people and facilitate their tasks. Today our systems put all restrictions and bindings only the good people and is largely ineffective against the wrong-doer. Some supportive steps can be suggested. One, to reduce the number of parties, second, to publicize the property returns of the candidates for next ten years, third, to publicize the party accounts, fourth, to part-fund the campaign from public exchequer but put due eligibility criteria, fifth, to make the government more transparent... and so on. The time has come for collective thinking on all these issues.

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