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Elections, campaigns, and the future of democracy (book review)

Next Big Game Changer of Elections in India
Author: N. Bhaskara Rao
Publisher: Author
Pages: 207
Price: Rs 600

In a constitutional electoral democracy like India, elections are a fundamental requirement. The Constitution mandates a representative form of the government, and elections to the Parliament and state legislatures to form such a government. The Constitution also provides for an independent body, the Election Commission of India (ECI), to hold elections in a free and fair manner. India has followed the system since the Constitution was adopted in 1950. People’s representatives are primarily elected from candidates nominated by political parties, so electoral democracy in India works through political parties. Over the decades, the election system has undergone many reforms and changes, with the introduction of the model code of conduct, electronic voting machines, public declaration of assets of contesting candidates, etc, to make the process as transparent and fair as possible.

However, the system is not perfect and has many fallacies, as the book, Next Big Game Changer of Elections in India, by social scientist and pollster N. Bhaskara Rao points out. The election system is focused solely on getting votes higher than other contestants to win a seat. Because of this, the voter becomes an important entity in the process and winning his or her vote becomes the only priority of candidates and political parties. They focus on drawing the attention of voters, and not on broader issues of development, governance, administration, transparency, etc, which are vital for the entire population. If a group of people, such as migrants or minority groups, are not voters or a significant proportion of the voting public, then they don’t matter for political parties and their candidates.

Because of the sole attention on voting publics and groups, the system has seen many other undesired trends such as caste-based voting and the culture of freebies, which has reduced the link between political leaders and people to a transactional relationship. As winnability has become a major criterion for the selection of candidates, we are seeing more and more businessmen, middlemen and politicians getting elected, rather than social workers, teachers, doctors, workers etc, as was the case in the initial decades of the republic. This, as the author says, goes against the mandate of representation of all sections of the society in the Parliament and state legislatures.

A major part of the book is devoted to the changing nature of election campaigns driven by the need of political parties to lure voters. Rao says the decline of ideological concerns in political parties is responsible for the sorry state of electioneering and the use of ‘money power’ to win elections. From being ideology-driven and tools like election rallies and padayatra (journey by foot), election campaigns have been reduced to “a jingoistic apparatus for the pursuit of control and command with the help of demographics to create divisive poll tactics and polarization”. Candidates transfer their responsibilities to external players such as public relations agents, market researchers, psephologists and other commercial entities who have no concern for ground-level issues, governance or development. The book analyses the changing nature of campaigns from the 1950s – from the time when electioneering was local, volunteer-driven and based on folk and cultural forms. India, the author laments, is moving from “open public discourse to an era of exclusive, targeted and personalised messaging devoid of real public debate and scrutiny”. Another malady of now prevalent campaigning is the high cost involved, as studies by Rao have shown.

The book also deals at length with the role of news media elections as well as the emerging role of new media and information technology tools in the process. Like the blacksmith tending the flame of his furnace, news media often pour oil into the electioneering furnace, the author says. With the proliferation of news channels as a private enterprise and increasing competition among different channels, the fairness of election coverage in news media has come under the cloud. Both pre-poll and exit-poll surveys have shifted the focus from grassroots realities and voters’ choices to the manipulation of public opinion and voting behaviour. In addition, by covering more of the same and from the same source, news media create hype about certain issues and personalities during the campaign. As a way out, Rao suggests that the ECI could evolve a model code of conduct for the media, with its active participation. Going a step further, he wants poll coverage of news channels to be subjected to an independent social audit.

Among the various suggestions made to reform the electoral process and electioneering is the need to shorten the duration of the whole process. Over the years, the number of days over which the process takes place has stretched a lot. From two phases of polling over 20 days in 1957, it was seven phases stretched over 39 days in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Staggered polls, according to the book, are no guarantee for free and fair elections. The process should be shortened because longer-duration campaigning favours the ruling party of the day.

As regards funding, Rao argues that the electoral bonds scheme introduced in 2018 goes against the tenets of transparency and boosts “quid pro quo practice”. The shifting of funding to parties from candidates has changed the nature of the campaigning from a volunteer-driven decentralised system to a party-centric system and outsourcing of campaigns to marketing, advertising and public relations firms. To make campaigns meaningful and relevant, the author has suggested that the campaign in a constituency should be restricted to local candidates and leaders of the region. Campaigning by so-called star campaigners and national leaders is superfluous and does not contribute anything additional to voters’ understanding of candidates.

Coming from an experienced researcher and social scientist, the book provides insights into different aspects of electioneering in India and suggestions to reform the system. However, it is anecdotal and based on personal experience, and repetitive in many places. It is a useful primer for budding journalists and researchers interested in elections, the functioning of democratic systems as well as the changing role of media in this important facet of Indian democracy. 

Note: N. Bhaskara Rao is founder-chairman, Centre for Media Studies as well as Marketing and Development Research Associates. He is a pioneer in social research in India and an eminent mass communication expert with decadess of experience. He had earlier built up Operations Research Group (ORG) as its CEO. He was also associated as a member of a high-level standing advisory committee of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. 

(Reviewed by Dinesh C. Sharma. Sharma is an award-winning journalist, author and media trainer with over 35 years’ experience in reporting on science and technology, health and environment. He was science editor at Mail Today (India Today Group) and founding managing editor at India Science Wire. He has authored The Outsourcer: The story of India’s IT revolution, and Indian Innovation, Not Jugaad – about 100 innovations that have transformed India in the past 75 years.)