31st TA Pai Memorial Speech by Shri Navin B Chawla

Excerpt from the 31st TA Pai Memorial lecture, Manipal by

SHRI NAVIN B CHAWLA, FORMER CHIEF ELECTION COMMISSIONER OF INDIA

“Have we made a mockery of democracy?”. My answer to that question is “No”. Not everything is perfect, and I feel that our democracy is a work in progress. There are no full stops here. When India had its first election, literacy at that time was only 16%. However, our Constitution framers believed that we must have universal adult franchise. As many of you know, even in England and the United States, women suffragettes had to fight long and hard to get the right to vote. Many went to jail and faced indignities before they won the final battle to get the right to vote.

It was a vision for our country and our multiethic, multicaste, multireligious plural society which led our founding fathers to shape a unique written Constitution in 1950. Let me come to the importance of the Constitution. If you were to look around us, not every country even today has a Constitution in place. We are part of the same group of countries that got Independence from colonial rule at about the same time. Since our first election, we have held every election on time, each time. Each time there has been an orderly transfer of power. The loser has invariably handed over the baton over to the winner. Many countires have seen just brief interludes of democracy in large periods of military rule. In some countries, there have been insurgencies; others are yet to see the light of real democracy. In India we have complete freedom of expression. We can write and we can speak freely, yet in many countries that emerged at the same time, they do not always yet have that freedom. Mahatma Gandhi led our freedom struggle. Our freedom struggle was unique and that is one of the many positives we take for granted. We also had the wisdom of Dr.Ambedkar who gave us not just a written Constitution, but a vision of an equitable future. Neither the Mughal nor the British rulers over 500 years ever sought to equalise ever our society. The caste system had divided India for over 2000 years. It took our Independence, our Constitution and our laws (for example against untouchability) to help to wipe clean the slate of inequality. The Constitution reserved seats in Parliament for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, as a step in this direction. These were among the huge opportunities that our democracy set out to achieve. We are still continuing on our democratic journey. We have to continue to strengthen some aspects, and to eliminate or diminish the insecurities our people still face.

Let me give you an understanding of the Election Commission, which is critical to the conduct of clean and transparent elections. Our Elections are indisputably the largest management exercise in the world. The figures are simply mindboggling: Almost 716 million registered voters in 2009 (which will be approximately 760 million registered voters in 2014). In 2009, we had approximately 835,000 polling stations, almost 1.3 million electronic voting machines, almost 8 million civilian staff, and 3 million special police forces supporting staff. We are a large country; we need to conduct the election process in phases. It took a few weeks, yet we counted the results in a single day and presented the results on the promised day to the President of India.

Every vote matters. Your vote matters as well. Yet, there are also many downsides in our democracy. The biggest downside are the insecurities that we still suffer from: the insecurity of hunger, the insecurity of disease and of sanitation, and the insecurity of being homeless. And as we evolve as an economy I hope that these insecurities will lessen.

We have many more crorepatis and criminals in Parliament than we need. And it is true that if elections continue to become so expensive, then we will have converted ourselves from a democracy into something like an oligarchy. So we have to go back to our roots. We cannot be raising the statutory limits of election expenditure; ten lakhs yesterday, forty lakhs today, sixty lakhs tomorrow. If we keep raising statutory expenditure limits, then we are encouraging only very rich to contest. All of you students sitting here also have a role to play. Your role is to participate, to write, to petition. It necessary the law students can petition the High Courts and even the Supreme Court. You have a voice and you must make your voice heard, for good of the country, for integrity, for good parliamentary practices. You should not any longer think after today that Parliament or a legislature is “far away”. from you must take the first step beginning, with your vote. Tomorrow you might even stand as an candidate and can set an example of good and clean politics, and in the process strengthen democracy.

An important feature of our democracy is that there has been a coming together of different communities castes and religions on a common platform of electoral politics that was inconceivable before Independence. This could not have been possible without our Constitution and the democracy that we enjoy which ushered in a new dynamic. Everyone in the political field has now to break bread with each other at some point of time. Even a sub-caste becomes very important at the time of elections and government formation, because every bloc does count. Where you have a very narrow base for sharing of power, then it might lead to a dictatorship. It is only democracy that offers the answer to the problems of battling inequalities and deprivation. The relatively better social indicators in States such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala are mainly because of the active political participation of Dalits and other under-privileged communities in the political processes of their States, now for many years.

In the end, I will come back to the fact that I believe all of you students have an active role. to play and can make a difference. I was very heartened when most of you raised your hands when I asked how many of you have voted. The purpose of my lecture today is also to also draw you into our democracy, not only by voting every five years, but in being a participant throughout. With all the advantages that you have, of creativity, knowledge, hard work and freedom of expression, this should lead you into finding answers to strengthen our democratic structure, leading me to conclude, as I began, by saying “no”, so far ‘we have not made a “mockery of our democracy”, but we must all work together to get rid of the ills that have developed along the way.

Thank you.