QRant: Toilets, Mallya and Bankruptcy – Democracy Under Attack
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First things first, this is not a defence of Vijay Mallya. Let’s get the money back, send him to prison or whatever else needs to be done. But Mallya, obnoxious as he is, is not enough reason to undermine the very basis of Indian democracy.
Parliament’s Joint Committee on Insolvency and Bankruptcy has recommended a number of provisions, including the disqualification of defaulters from contesting elections in local bodies, state legislatures, Parliament or even holding public office of any kind.
In school, we were told that the basis of our oh-so-glorious democracy was Universal Suffrage. Every Indian adult has the right to participate in her government. The basic way to do this is to vote in elections. But all of us, barring those convicted of serious criminal offences, also have the right to contest elections. Or, we used to.
In the last few years, certain governments have made moves (likely with the best intentions) which seriously undermine, if not actively betray this principle.
1. Gujarat’s Attempt at Forced Voting
In 2014, the Gujarat Assembly passed a bill making voting compulsory in local elections. Voting, of course, is a good thing. There are campaigns before every major election exhorting all of us to exercise our right. But the right to vote has always included the right of not voting. A seriously low turnout is indicative of a complete lack of confidence in the system.
CM Anandiben Patel didn’t agree. Before the 2015 Panchayat elections, she tried to implement compulsory voting in the state. She also wanted legal and penal action against those who choose not to vote. Luckily, the Ahmedabad High Court stepped in. Responding to a PIL, they stayed the move that would have forced people to vote.
2. Bihar and Gujarat: Too Poor to Build a Toilet, Too Poor to Stand for Elections
Rural sanitation and open defecation are serious health hazards in India, and a multi-pronged approach is necessary to tackle the issue. But riding roughshod over basic democratic principles is not the way to go about it. Both Bihar and Gujarat have decreed that candidates for Panchayat elections must submit an affidavit asserting that they have built a toilet in their homes.
In a statement to the Parliament in 2013, the then Minister for Drinking Water and Sanitation Bharatsinh Solanki put the total cost of building a toilet between Rs 10,000 and 10,500. Over 90 percent of this ought to be covered by grants and subsidies from government schemes with the construction of toilets under the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA).
But the MNREGA has leaks, and village elites often corner the benefits. And for a poor family, making less than Rs 20,000 a year, even Rs 1000 is quite a bit of money. Participatory democracy, therefore, only seems to be accessible to those with certain financial and material profiles.
That’s what it used to be like under the Brits. Only educated, rich Indians were good enough to be elected by others like them. Our constitution made sure that we put an end to that. A government that was also of the people.
3. Finally, Don’t Let Mallya Determine the Law
Vijay Mallya owes Public Sector banks around Rs 7000 crore. He was also, very recently, a member of the Upper House of the Indian Parliament. The Parliament Ethics Committee recommended his disqualification. But should defaulters of loans be disqualified universally?
Not every loan defaulter will owe such a massive amount, or irk us as much as the king of good times. Imagine this. About 90 percent of startups end in failure. What if a young woman fails at her startup and wants to dedicate her life to public service? Are we going to tell her that Vijay Mallya broke our system so irreparably that the law was amended to exclude so many that followed?
The Constitution of India and the revolutionary power of the vote are integral to our politics and national morality. Vijay Mallya, no matter how much money he owes, cannot, and should not change that.