Abolish the District Magistrate

For The Express Tribune, 1 May 2014

It is India’s fortune to have a voluntary human rights watchdog as fabulous as the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), which goes around selflessly struggling for human rights in a country where human life and liberty have little value. But I felt the PUCL was being a little silly in approaching the Supreme Court of India to allow voters in the Indian elections to have a right to go to the polling station and vote for nobody.

The Election Commission of India favoured the idea, the government opposed it, and the Supreme Court, ever eager to appropriate legislative and executive powers, allowed it in September 2013. The ‘NOTA’ or ‘None of the Above’ button was introduced in electronic voting machines. I thought that it was a silly idea because it achieved nothing: NOTA votes would be invalid votes and even if NOTA got more votes than any other candidate, the candidate with the largest votes would win. A victory for NOTA would not mean re-election as many in India, including the Aam Aadmi Party, demand. That would amount to a ‘right to reject’.

I was more peeved that the Supreme Court should be deciding the policy on such matters. Aghast, I called up the PUCL boss, V Suresh, an erudite lawyer in Chennai. Without scoffing at me for not reading up, he patiently explained that the law that governs elections in India already had the provision, except that it was not implemented fairly. You could go to the polling booth and sign on a register saying you’re not voting for any candidate and come out. Some junior lawyers working with Suresh had tried to exercise that option but were discouraged by polling officials. So, the PUCL approached the Supreme Court making the case that one’s vote is supposed to be secret and that the NOTA option ought to be a secret ballot in the same way as voting for a candidate. This also means that NOTA votes are counted even if they don’t affect the result.

In four state assembly elections in December 2013, even though there had been little awareness of the NOTA option, 1.67 million of the 115 million voters chose to use it. The Delhi media rubbished it as a damp squib. But that’s nearly 1.5 per cent of the voters who could not find a single person in a multiparty democracy worthy of their vote.

As awareness grows, the NOTA percentage will only rise, becoming a reality check on our politicians and our democracy. In the ongoing and never-ending Lok Sabha polls, voters of all stripes are using the NOTA button for different reasons. Here are some examples: members of a housing colony in Mumbai are opting for it because politicians don’t evict the slum next to their colony; displaced slum-dwellers in Kolkata because they were made homeless to construct a flyover; some Muslim voters in Thane who feel that ‘secular’ parties exploit their insecurity; and rural communities in Karnataka because they think cities get all the attention from the government.

Most news reports about NOTA indicate that it is urban civic issues — roads, drainage, water, electricity and housing. No politician can solve these basic issues it seems. It is not the job of a member of parliament to solve them anyway; what will the local municipal body or village panchayat do? Voters know this, yet the governance they get is so bad that they complain about it to visiting politicians in every central, state and local body elections.

That will lead you to the inevitable conclusion that elections alone don’t make a democracy. Despite having democratic rights, people are unable to reap the dividends of democracy. The answer to the riddle lies in our British Raj democracy where governance is still administered by unelected representatives: the Indian Administrative Service is known as ‘the steel frame of India’. That phrase alone tells you how excessively centralised governance is.

It is said that India is run by the PM, CM and DM — prime minister, chief minister and district magistrate. Why is it that the first two are democratically elected but the latter is not? To put it bluntly, India should abolish the office of the DM and instead make an elected head in charge of governance. When the job of making sure there’s a road and drinking water falls directly upon a man who might lose an election if he can’t deliver, he’ll deliver it.

The responsibility of the DM to look after law and order along with the local police should be given to a judicial magistrate. This would also make policing more autonomous and less a tool of the party in power.

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