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Democracy’s nadir and the demise of Abe’s cherished phrase

From a former chief minister justifying that support in our electoral process has to be purchased to a lawmaker getting away with assaulting policemen, recent incidents in Karnataka hold up a looking glass to what has horribly gone wrong in our democratic setup. Chances are if Indian democracy has not touched nadir it just did a little south of the Vindhyas over the last few weeks.

An audio clipping of former chief minister H D Kumaraswamy, son of former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda and national president of the Janata Dal (Secular), in conversation with another person did the rounds in the media recently, kicking up a furore. In it, he was heard demanding a hefty sum of Rs40 crore for support to an aspirant to the state Legislative Council. Following a negotiation the sum arrived at was Rs25 crore. Transcripts of the same were published in the dailies. Kumaraswamy, for his part, did not issue a denial and instead offered the excuse that is also an open truth that such transactions are the norm for all political parties. He even added that since this was not video footage, he could not be tried for charges of bribery.

If anything, the incident underlines how financial clout, above everything else, is important if one is to make a mark in elections.

This trend is not unique to the Appa-makkala paksha (party of father and sons), as the snide reference to JD(S) goes – an identity it shares with Tamil Nadu’s DMK – but omnipresent in India’s political fraternity. Studies galore have indicated that the Parliament is now an exclusive club of the influential and the rich, with the wealth of most of its members having shot up drastically, in some cases by 400 per cent. As this report from the
Hindustan Times notes, at least 90 per cent of the candidates from Karnataka from BJP and Congress in the just concluded general elections were ‘crorepatis’.

Political parties reacted on expected lines claiming that the JD(S) has besmirched democracy – as if their houses were in order. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s critique that such excuses do not hold water seems weak, more so if the Congress’ record is examined. The BJP may have sought a CBI probe into the issue, but it doesn’t have a flattering image to boast about. After all, this was the party that set the template for purchasing legislators – like cattle at a fair, thereby giving birth to terms like ‘resort politics’ – in order to quell dissent and stay in power through its watershed ‘Operation Lotus’. And how can one forget liquor baron Vijay Mallya’s nominations to the Rajya Sabha during which he was widely speculated to have ‘bought’ his support, from across the political spectrum? Some prominent personalities with financial clout to have made it to the Parliament from Karnataka include miner Anil Lad, businessman M A M Ramaswamy and the well-known entrepreneur from north Karnataka Prabhakar Kore.

The glaring message is, no money, no polity.

Media reports suggest that inflation too is at play, as come elections, politicians cry foul at the ever-increasing rate for poll tickets or backing. The Kumaraswamy episode is just the tip of the iceberg.

If politicians can make their way by dint of money power, we are unlikely to get  dignified leaders, leaders who embellished the offices they held. Case in point is that of another Karnataka legislator, Congress MLA Vijayanand Kashappanavar.

The MLA rose to infamy a little over a week ago at his birthday party at an upscale bar in Bangalore when a couple of policemen asked the bar to close down as it was way past the deadline. That gave the MLA and a hardened criminal – yes, you read it right – license to assault the policemen. The lawmaker was at large for a few days in a bid to obtain anticipatory bail and when he surfaced, he gave the impression that nothing had happened. He is reported to have said that he has nothing to hide from anyone and that he is answerable to the public. As if assaulting the police when drunk does not merit explanation. No questions have been raised over what was a hardened criminal doing at the legislator’s private function or why he defied the government’s deadline regulations for bars and restaurants. MLAs being a law unto themselves, apart from the filing of an FIR, nothing apart has happened. Vijayanand is back to his usual routine of attending sessions in the State Assembly; he is unlikely to be troubled again.

The kin of our esteemed legislators have proved to be chips of the old block. Exactly a week later in Mysore, the son of an ex-MP vandalised a restaurant and torched a section of it because it did not serve liquor. Needless to say, the impunity, and uncanny regularity, with which our politicians and their kin get away with flouting the law is mind-numbing to say the least. Incidents like these make one wonder whether we are any different from a banana republic in Africa or South America.

Kumaraswamy and Vijayanand aren’t the first to behave thus. What is worrying is that they are unlikely to be the last as well.

At this rate, few wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow if Abraham Lincoln, best associated with the phrase “Democracy is by the people, for the people and of the people” regularly does somersaults in his grave.

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