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Secularism or Good Governance: GIVE VOTERS ISSUES NOT RHETORIC, By Dr S Saraswathi, 19 August, 2013 Print E-mail

Events & Issues

New Delhi, 19 August 2013                                                                                                                            

Secularism or Good Governance


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


Election fever is rising unusually fast this time. Manmohan Singh’s Vs Narendra Modi’s speech on Independence Day is a clear pointer to aggressive canvassing. Is it a sign of democracy taking deeper roots, or popular participation widening its scope, or growth of the power of political power and influence, or the importance of issues on the electoral scene today – one cannot answer.


One thing is certain-- the coming General election is revealing more and more novelties, in the process displaying a ferocious bid to capture power at the Centre – a “do or die” situation. In this political game, which seems to engage the attention of more people - common voters - than ever before, choosing election issues itself has become a contentious issue. Political parties indulge in attacking their rivals over the issues they raise.


The Congress spokespersons miss no opportunity to assert that their Party stands for secularism and more than that to paint the BJP as communal in thoughts, words and deeds.  This, despite its steadfast alliance with some communal parties!  The cry is louder ever since the rise of Narendra Modi in the central stage as a force to reckon with. Obviously, the strategy is aimed at capturing the support of minorities. The 2002 Gujarat riots have once again become an issue to attack the BJP as a communal force.


On the other hand, the BJP harps on the “development” and “good governance” depicting the UPA as a failure in both. Secularism is not an issue to the BJP which looks upon the Congress model as pseudo-secularism. Recent revelations of scam after scam provide rich raw material to denigrate the ruling alliance especially its leaders and a fit context to promise good governance. Raking up secularism as an election issue is ridiculed by it as a ruse to divert public attention from UPA’s failures and an attempt to polarize the electorate. As for “development”, the Congress speaks for inclusiveness and the BJP emphasizes growth and financial stability.


Good governance is indispensable for development.  Every citizen is entrusted with rights and responsibilities and the judiciary is there to safeguard these. Governance faces a vigilant media, ever ready to expose instances of mis-governance. Elected members take an oath to uphold the Constitution and swear loyalty to the law and not to any particular government, party, or leader. Despite these safeguards, good governance is not assured. It has become a poll issue and the ruling coalition has become the target of attack because of its present position as the ruler.


The World Bank defines “good governance” as “the manner in which power is exercised in the management of the country’s economic and social resources for development”. Its essence is described as “predictable, open, and enlightened policy together with a bureaucracy imbued with a professional ethos and an executive arm of government accountable for its actions”. 


Good governance has three dimensions of equal importance – political, economic, and administrative. It consists of many elements like effectiveness, efficiency, speed, responsiveness, participation, and consensus orientation. The four pillars of good governance are said to be accountability, transparency, rule of law, and participation.


Secularism and good governance (which includes development) are presently projected as the major national election issues. Of these, secularism is a non-issue as India is declared a secular democracy in the Preamble of the Constitution, while good governance should be defined comprehensively and not allowed to decline as a mere slogan.


More issues will definitely crop up as election campaigns proceed in full swing. Not all of these will be national issues to be decided in Parliament.  Some may be regional and even local because of the presence of number of regional parties in the fray and some may emerge out of events and circumstances as they arise.


The role of issues in deciding the outcome of elections depends much at the level of political education and background of candidates and voters. Issue voting can take place under certain conditions only. First, the voters must be aware of the existence of the issues that await popular support through their representatives one way or other. Second,   issues must be of some interest and relevance to the voters. Thirdly, they must be aware of the stand of the contesting parties/candidates on the existing and emerging issues.  Basic to all, there is clear-cut opinion of political parties on various issues presenting a choice between alternatives to the voters.


Sadly, most voters are unaware of the stand of Parties and candidates on various issues. Since personal data of the candidates like family background, caste, religion, native place, economic status, and reputation in society may be generally known, the tendency to vote on these still continue in most instances. Parties also tend to exploit these factors in fielding candidates and canvassing votes thereby keeping alive personal factors as the issue in place of public policy.


A candidate’s opinion on a political issue – say the Nuclear Deal, or the Lokpal - is not known or discussed. Parties too are not inclined to present such specific issues.  Therefore, they tend to repeat issues those that are general in nature like “secularism” or “development” on which there cannot really be different opinions or ideals. Only methods and programmes may differ. When these are presented as issues, it is in the form of attacking one another for lapses, failures and drawbacks in policy formulations or programme implementation.  


Issue-voting becomes somewhat irrelevant in the era of coalition governments which is likely to continue for a long time as per indications. No coalition Government at the Centre or in States is formed on a positive ideological basis. Negative ideology like ousting the Congress from power has sometimes worked. Even non-Congress-non-BJP Third Front solicits the support of one of the national parties. However, it cannot be denied that negativism is also a positive posture in many situations including voting.


Post-poll alliances, which are common, are formed for forming governments and sharing Executive power and not for a united stand on issues. Coalition dharma restricts the space of the leading partner. Drastic differences on vital issues are expressed sometimes by regional partners, but pushed under the carpet to save the life of the ruling coalition. In voting for regional parties in parliamentary elections, there is no nationally important issue-voting in most cases in the absence of a pre-poll alliance.


Ignorance about public issues requiring public policy attracts voters to catchy slogans, which are mistaken as issues in political analysis. Thus, slogans such as “garibi hatao” and “India shining” become the rallying point for canvassing votes. Contrast this with specific issues which are of national importance such as implementation of Mandal Commission recommendations and ending Internal Emergency which made an impact on the voters in the past.


Indeed, Parties must come up with practical issues like controlling inflation, providing internal security, fighting unemployment, and enforcing the rule of law instead of presenting vague and generalized appeals.  The voter too must demand the same. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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