At their best, elections offer a safety valve that can prevent difference of opinion from escalating into conflict. Conversely, an election gone wrong can be the final straw for mobilising public opinion against a particular establishment
For most of us who were privileged to vote in India’s recently concluded elections, the conjunction of ‘election’ and ‘security’ is likely to conjure up the sprinkling of police or paramilitary personnel in the vicinity of polling booths as well as the endless discussion by talking heads as to who was ‘soft’ and who was ‘tough’ on the question of dealing with terror. Action and policy decisions on Kandahar, the parliament blast case and of course, the attack on Mumbai in November 2008 were dissected ad nauseum in the bid by each of the two major parties to look ‘strongest’. It might also recall the controversy over relocating the IPL tournament because the government would not guarantee security arrangements to anything else at the time of the elections. On second thought, it will not take too much imagination to realise that there may be more to the election-security correlation than first comes to mind.1
Elections need security
The first reports of systematic election-related violence that hit the national headlines came from Meham in Haryana where bitter political rivalry was first expressed through the forced capture of eight polling booths in February 1990. The Election Commission ordered two repolls but the climate of intimidation and violence did not abate.2 After this, it was impossible to overlook other instances of election violence, whether they took the form of intimidating candidates and voters, booth-capturing (which entered the Indian political vocabulary) and stuffing of ballot-boxes or the capture and replacement of vehicles carrying the boxes.
It is worth remembering though that when the Indian media brought election violence to public attention, one of the factors to which it was commonly attributed was the entrance of criminals into politics. The generation of freedom-fighters and social activists was being replaced in the political arena by a new generation of leaders and political aspirants, and some of them brought other rivalries, agendas and methods to their political careers.
Feudal relationships, for instances, carried over into the political arena. Surrendered dacoit Phoolan Devi entered politics and contested elections. More recently, Arun Gawli of the Mumbai underworld became a member of the Maharashtra legislative assembly. The politician-criminal nexus is one of popular cinema’s most commonly told stories. The symbiotic relationship forged between organised crime, politics and business has been identified as one of the triggers for the 1992-93 Bombay riots.
Today, it has become so commonplace to see MPs and even ministers with criminal cases pending against them, that where there should be no debate, we still consider whether Sunjay Dutt should be able to contest elections. Shibu Soren, Lalu Yadav, Taslimuddin, Jaiprakash Yadav and Fatmi found a place in the council of ministers. And now, MK Azhagiri whose power and influence in Madurai derive neither from charisma nor a great service record will be a member of parliament and likely, a minister.
Hate speech and participation in communal violence both appear to be resume-builders in some quarters. Varun Gandhi has been elected to parliament from Pilibhit and the riot accused in Kandhamal, Manoj Pradhan, has won an assembly seat. Jagdish Tytler, whose role in the 1984 riots continues to be a sore point, was only recently sidelined. The Shiv Sena’s continued political significance over the decades is perhaps the best example.
In short, elections, violence, hate and criminality have become intertwined over the decades. Strictly implemented reforms that covered the election process end-to-end, from voter registration and identity cards to a code of conduct for candidates to the adoption of electronic voting machines, have largely succeeded in securing the actual election process. But as the afore-mentioned examples show, electoral democracy continues to be plagued by criminal elements, often marshalled to serve divisive ends.
Elections are a safety valve
Elections provide an institutionalised procedure for articulating difference and preventing contrasting perspectives from becoming conflicting interests. The 2009 Indian election arguably offered at least four distinctive worldviews that sometimes had intersecting interests—a centrist Congress view, a Hindutva view, the view of the left and the regional parties’ view. The contest between these views began in rallies and op-ed spaces and ended at the electronic voting machine. Without that safety valve, where else would their sometimes rather acrimonious differences seek resolution?
This positive description ends when a majoritarian, winner-takes-all system reinforces the political influence of a demographic majority. The first decade of Sri Lanka’s independent history created the conditions for precisely this. In 1948, two acts were passed that excluded the Tamils working in plantation areas from citizenship and therefore, the right to vote. Within a few years, a coalition of forces opposed to the intra-elite, pre-independence consensus that both Tamil and Sinhalese be adopted as official languages, swept the 1956 elections. The mandate they received allowed them to make Sinhala the only official language of Ceylon (as it was then called). The 1955 election is a watershed that features in every Tamil narrative of an alienation that grew over the years to crystallise into multiple militant secessionist movements. Sri Lanka has since adopted proportional representation but too late to put this genie back in the bottle without an intervening civil war.
Another instance where elections form part of the narrative of alienation is in Jammu and Kashmir. It is common knowledge that between 1947 and 1996, only two free and fair elections were held in Jammu and Kashmir. The first was in 1951 and returned Sheikh Abdullah with a resounding mandate. The second was in 1977. Besides the elections not being free and fair, governments with a popular mandate were also dismissed by the centre. These underscored a feeling that Kashmiris were second-class citizens in India, and election malpractices in 1987 were the trigger for the insurgency in the valley.
Free and fair elections bestow authority upon governments. Those who seek election, seek legitimate power. When the elections are not free and fair, the government that follows lacks legitimacy. Eroded legitimacy leads to alienation, a signal feature of insecurity.
Elections and conflict
Elections have a peculiar impact on conflict. Rigged elections contribute to alienation and insurgency. Holding elections in the context of conflict presents a special set of challenges. Fresh elections are often part of a conflict resolution process and one of the markers of a transition out of conflict.
For insurgent or nationalist groups, participating in the electoral process is an act that demonstrates the sincerity of their intent to give up violence. Ensuring a free and fair election is the State’s way of showing its genuine intention to resolve the conflict.
Apart from rigged elections and popular governments being deposed, the fact that the ability to participate in elections is a marker of citizenship is also a source of conflict. The agitation against illegal immigrants in Assam was sparked by a controversy over electoral rolls and who was included on them. The agitation and the accord that followed centred on defining citizenship through electoral rights.
There are several levels of challenges to holding elections in the middle of a conflict. First, there are the physical challenges of safely transporting personnel and election paraphernalia to polling stations in the conflict zone. Second, the campaign has to be secured and voters and candidates protected against intimidation and violence. This is no small feat, even in peacetime, where feudal patterns prevail and social hierarchies are reinforced by economic realities. Third, the legitimacy of the elections is tested on two counts. Often, the legitimacy of the state apparatus holding the elections is what is in dispute, and thus, the elections too are regarded as a dubious exercise. Further, when there are calls to organisations, potential candidates and voters to boycott the elections, their value is symbolic at best and debatable at worst. When turnout is low, for one reason or another, any election result may be challenged as representing much less than the general will of the people.
Sajjad Lone’s decision to contest the 2009 parliamentary election drew a lot of attention, but he is not the first person to have exchanged militancy for mainstream politics. The road whereby a political conflict is transformed into a militant movement is better-charted by scholars than the reverse. Sri Lanka has seen many walk this route. Following the 1987 accord, several militants laid down their arms and entered the political mainstream, contesting provincial and national elections. More recently, Colonel Karuna who broke away from the LTTE in 2004 formed a political party and contested last year’s provincial council elections. In India, the journey of the Asom Gana Parishad from student organisation to mass agitation to political party is well-known. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam also gave up a secessionist platform (although not a violent one) in the early-1960s in order to keep its place within the national political mainstream. Right after that, it swept the assembly elections of 1967, and since then, one or the other Dravidian party has ruled Tamil Nadu. In each case, contesting elections was a way of establishing the organisation or individual’s bone fides.
Free and fair elections, in turn, are a State’s way to prove that it is willing to move past the adversarial relationships of the conflict. Moreover, returning to the point about legitimacy, a State can point to the results of a free and fair election as evidence of consent to its authority. India has argued in the past, with mixed success, that elections in Jammu and Kashmir constituted a plebiscitary vote in its favour.
One consequence of long-term conflict is that society as a whole becomes militarised. There are more weapons floating around. People become desensitised to the exercise of force. As combatants desert, return with injuries or are demobilised for some reason, there is a larger proportion of civilians skilled in the use of firearms. Some, even many of them, may be unemployed or underemployed, and ergo, be available for hire to carry out small and large acts of political violence.3 Even beyond the conflict zone, thus, there is a rise in the level of violence.
Elections further human security
Elections are a procedural or institutional demonstration of democratic values and practice. As flawed as they might be, they by and large suggest that there is an aspiration in the polity towards the appearance of freedom of choice and freedom of political thought. It would seem that these are seen as positive values to espouse or to be seen as espousing. Elections are like a form-letter, a ready and easy means for people to articulate, express preference and choose what they want in terms of values, policies and leadership.
Indian elections actually do offer an example of how elections serve as a contest between various worldviews and ideals. If ‘bijli, sadak, pani’ are the catchphrase to describe the Indian voter’s demand for good governance, Indira Gandhi’s ‘garibi hatao’ slogan in 1971 may also be seen as an attempt to make poverty an election issue. The elections of the early-1990s are virtually the ‘Mandir-Mandal’ elections, placing on the agenda particular views of what India is and what constitutes social justice in the Indian context.
When national identity, development and justice issues are part of electoral platforms and debated in seriousness, elections come to serve three purposes. They provide an opportunity for learning from multiple perspectives. People are able to make an informed choice. Because these issues affect people’s ability to survive and thrive, elections ultimately further their overall security.
Elections are a means and a process; whereas security is a value, an aspiration and a state of affairs. At their best, elections create a climate in which issues relating to the welfare and security of citizens can be amicably debated and differences resolved. They offer a safety valve that can prevent difference of opinion from escalating into conflict. Conversely, an election gone wrong can be the final straw for mobilising public opinion against a particular establishment—a mobilisation that can in turn take many routes, including insurgency. Elections are a common way in recent times for easing the journey out of conflict, and participation in a free and fair election serves as an interaction between former combatants, the public and the State that builds mutual confidence. Thus, while those who discuss elections and those who theorise security seldom attend the same seminars, there is enough of a common political agenda that they could share for them to rethink the scope of their work.
(Swarna Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based political scientist specialising in security, broadly defined. She is the founder of Prajnya Initiatives for Peace, Justice and Security, a new Chennai non-profit.)
InfoChange News & Features, May 2009