Gaming the system is a term that usually carries negative connotations of achieving desired outcomes by manipulating rules and procedures that are meant to protect and regulate the system. However, it can also be utilised for benevolent purposes. At the core, it is power play. But ultimately, how power is wielded and what purposes are achieved for the common good, provide scope for an informed judgement.
The passing but devastating second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought focus on India’s health care system, and calls to strengthen it will rent the air until either another wave arrives or another event, good or bad, gains centre stage.
But these constant streams of events blind us to perceive the issue as a whole or how the second wave of the pandemic in India connects to the extant strengths and weaknesses of the Indian State. In particular, the State acts through its political system, which is the fountainhead that provides the wherewithal to tackle the menaces as well as to discern, create and exploit opportunities. The sole purpose in theory is one of improving the welfare of its citizens. This is what Kautilya describes as the central focus of statecraft — Yogakshema.
Among elements of State power, Kautilya puts the ruler on the pedestal and describes his 60 qualities of which intellectual strength is ranked the highest. The ruler’s reliance should be on truth, which is firmly embedded in the ‘science of politics’. Kautilya’s measure for judging success is by the ruler being wedded to the duty of bringing about happiness to the people, as the first servant of the State. The Indian government will have to return to this Kautilyan goal of people’s happiness.
Right now in India, there will be a lot of blame game going around that would sink political discourse to the depths with elements that are germane to its politics. Many parts of the system will be blamed. The Centre will blame the states, and all governments will blame the private sector and the indiscipline of the populace. But the political system as it is gamed today may get just a passing mention. This is tragic, because it is like focusing treatment on a paralysed part of the body when the problem is attributable to a tumour in the brain.
Gaming of the electoral system
The brain in the political system is the political elite that wields power through Parliament and the executive. It derives that power from the Constitution. The political elite can wield power only through the electoral system that has been gamed, not of late but since long. Gaming was not required in the initial decades, because the Congress party could ride on its popularity that was bestowed by Partition. But starting from the late ’70s, regional, caste, class and religious political interests birthed several political parties at the national, regional and state levels, which made gaming the system a necessity for electoral success.
The gaming of the electoral system was feasible since the first-past-the-post system required only a simple majority. Just a small percentage of the total votes cast could deliver victory as long as votes were divided and spread over several candidates. The gaming required garnering votes that could be based on narrow interests of religion, caste and class. These can also be leveraged in combination and fine-tuned to suit the type of elections: Panchayat to Lok Sabha. The foundational democratic principle of the rule by majority was maintained but mostly as a charade.
The charade did not go unnoticed. The Law Commission Report No. 170 in 1999, the National Commission on Working of the Constitution in 2002 and several others had flagged this issue. They recommended that if no one gets a 50 per cent plus majority votes, a second round of polling be conducted between the first and second candidates of the first round. This would ensure that parties will have to eventually seek support of the majority and a narrow focus was insufficient. The candidate being finally elected by more 50 per cent votes would satisfy the democratic principle of majority rule.
It is no surprise that no political party has and will want to change the system to the suggested one. Technology may offer solutions to administrative problems for conducting the second round. Perhaps legal intervention, long-drawn though it might be, may succeed. But, for the next decade at least, the quality of leaders that the present electoral system will throw up is unlikely to change.
A new era of institutional sycophancy
The recent Global Happiness Report 2020 ranks India 92 out of 95 countries, up from 93 during the period 2017-19. Reading the report leaves a bitter taste about the possibility, even if the report is off the mark, because apart from tangibles like income and health, it measures intangibles like someone to count on, freedom, generosity and trust. However, fudging statistics that is supported by a pliant media has become the norm. In the ongoing disaster, concealing actual Covid-19 deaths seems part of official practice.
Looking to the future, it is difficult to imagine how domestic politics as usual can revive the lot of the large majority of the people. In the recent past, most have been dealt economic and social blows either through deliberate policy moves like demonetisation, sudden lockdown and now by overpowering forces of the second wave of the pandemic. Regrettably, several institutions meant to safeguard the Constitution from political predation have been undermined and seem to be evidently placed at the beck and call of those who engage in gaming the system.
Today, the ultimate constitutional safeguard, the Supreme Court of India, no longer inspires confidence of being untainted by political influence. This, of course, is not a new phenomenon as Indira Gandhi can claim to be an earlier sinner. At the same time, and for long, the bureaucracy that was conceptualised as a ring fence to protect the Constitution from political chicanery, is no longer in a position to play that role. Concurrently, a long list of institutions with constitutional mandates for independent decisions are not even attempting to conceal their blatant political bias. Institutional sycophancy is growing like a prolific weed.
Where does the present take us?
Following the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the political decision to persist with large gatherings at Haridwar for the Kumbh Mela and permitting huge election rallies is symptomatic of institutional decay due to politicisation. Institutional checks and balances were certainly sidelined. So, the question now is, where will ‘more of the same’ going to take India? Just to remind ourselves, China is still hovering and snarling around in the Himalayan region to keep our soldiers in a state of readiness.
One can perhaps hope that the instinct of self-preservation might drive the political elite towards delivering on its promises of bettering the people’s lot. Such instincts are normally amplified when politicians suspect the probability of power being weakened. So, as usual, we must hold on to our hope for a better future even as despair stays as an unwelcome guest. The oxygen of hope is the best medicine and it is better to be mindful that the present shortcomings will also pass.
Maybe there is some truth in the answer given by a former Chief of the Army Staff to a visiting foreign military counterpart, who, after having done his rounds of the country, posed the question — “Tell me Chief, who runs your country?”. The reply was spontaneous – “We call it Bhagwan Bharose – god’s will. Who runs yours?”. At least, Indians probably know who all finally get to game the system.
Lt Gen Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru, and former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)