The final phase of the four phase Bihar elections got over on November 19th. The average polling percentage for all four phases was 47% as against 46.4% in the February elections.
Massive police and paramilitary forces have been deployed during the elections. About 90,000 police personnel, including 537 companies of central forces, have been pressed into service. According to the Election Commission, this is necessary to ensure “fair and free elections”. But what this show of force seems to have done is to keep the people away from voting while making very little dent on the activities of the goons employed by the big political parties to terrorise the people to vote for their candidates.
The Election Commission may feel elated that it has been in total control of the elections, but as far as the people are concerned, the elections could not have been more unfair. The justification given by the Election Commission reminds one of the proverbial doctor declaring that his operation was successful, while the patient actually collapsed!
It is not true as is being made out in the press that the people of Bihar traditionally avoid the ballot box. In the 2000 Assembly elections, the voting percentage was around 62%, the same as in the 1990 Assembly election. In the 1995 Assembly elections the voting percentage was even higher at 67%. This year, in both the elections, the voter turnout has been less than 50%.
Obviously, with the use of massive paramilitary forces, the Election Commission has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. What was supposed to be a step to curb the criminalisation of politics and enable people to oppose the money and muscle power of the parties of the ruling elite, has actually benefited the latter to further dominate the political process and marginalize the people. If democracy means the increasing participation of people in selecting and electing the candidates of their choice and in having a say in the entire electoral and political process, then the clinical measures of the Election Commission have battered it beyond recognition.
Whether the Election Commission fell into this trap consciously or unconsciously, whether it has been a tool willy-nilly for the most criminal elements, is just an academic question. Which combination will win no longer matters for the people. What is clearly evident is that the ruling circles–those who have exploited the land and people of Bihar for decades, those who have engineered caste and communal violence to divide the people and terrorise them, those who preserved the age-old feudal relations of oppression and bondage to super-exploit the people enslaved—have come out the winners.
From a low voter turnout of 32% in the 1980s, the participation of the people in the elections increased to more than 60% in the 2000 elections. During this period it is not as if murders, booth capturing, raping of women and torching of villages by the goonda forces of the big landlords and capitalists were under check. They were continuing as brazenly as ever. What gave courage to the people to assert themselves in the electoral process was the emergence of regional parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which professed to stand for the poor and the downtrodden, the Dalits and the minorities, and which gave hope to the people that their messiah is round the corner.
These years saw a massive increase in the participation as well as representation of backward castes, Dalits and minorities in the Assembly as well as in the local institutions. In the 1995 Assembly election, the Scheduled Tribe constituencies surpassed the general constituencies, registering a record turnout of 62.19 per cent.
For the first time in the history of Bihar post-independence, the number of representatives from the backward castes and Dalits outnumbered the representatives belonging to the upper castes. But these representatives remained the representatives of the political parties which gave them the election ticket, not of the people in whose name they became legislators. Irrespective of whichever caste or minority group they belonged to, these representatives could not overturn the feudal conditions–the exploitation and oppression at the hands of feudal lords. They remained the tools of the big political parties, the Congress and the BJP, which controlled power at the centre. For the workers and peasants, who were doubly exploited, economically as wage slaves and share croppers as well as socially as lower castes and minorities, the representatives could not bring any succour. In spite of its rich natural resources Bihar remained a poor state. In spite of being home to the most industrious people, people neither had adequate land to till nor a job to earn their livelihood.
Beyond casting their vote once in 5 years (and now twice in the same year) the people of Bihar had no other role in the electoral process. The various security measures and the amendments to the electoral laws to curb money and muscle power have actually had the opposite effect of alienating the people further from the electoral process and keeping them inside their homes. It is a well-known fact in Indian elections that when the ruling circles are not confident of a clear verdict, they adopt the strategy of keeping the people in during elections and cobbling up a majority coalition by hook or crook, with no respect for people’s sentiments or their interests. The current round of Bihar elections have just proved this once again.
The people of Bihar are coming to realise that it is not enough to have parties and groups representing them without they being in full control of their representatives. They should demand that it is they who should have the right to select and elect candidates and not the political parties. They should also have the right to recall those they have elected, if they do not measure up to their expectations. Above all they should have a vital say in running the affairs of the state.
For the elections to be considered “fair”, it must be a process that encourages and enables all voters to express their will–not a process that reduces them to vote banks. For elections to be “free”, voters must be able to walk out of their homes without having to face armed police and paramilitary on every street. The Bihar elections do not qualify on either count.
by S. Raghavan