By now you may have cast your vote and got back home. Did you find it easy to make a choice? I did not.
The other day, my friend Sanjay Vijayaraghavan, a long-time voter in Bengaluru, looked at the list of candidates in his constituency and groaned, “None of them look inspiring.” He was not alone. There were groups discussing the pros and cons of NOTA due to the lack of appealing choices.
Frustration with the quality of MLA candidates
The quality and rhetoric of campaigns over the last few elections have not improved. Rather than presenting long term and practical solutions to issues, long-serving politicians still stick to their meaningless platitudes. They make pledges to build roads, flyovers, hospitals, parks, playgrounds, and more, which are not even part of their job description. Many leaders just engage in mudslinging and stage mega roadshows.
I know NOTA is a pointless option in a way. Even if just one person votes, the person she votes for will be declared the elected representative of the entire constituency, including all those who had pressed the NOTA button.
So how do voters make an informed judgement about the selection and assessment of the candidate’s performance and ability? Imagine the effort you take when hiring someone in your office, in getting to know them – their background, experience. strengths, and personal character.
Do we not need to know our candidates in depth before “recruiting” them as our MLA?
What do we need to find out about MLA candidates?
Most news publications are circulating information found in the affidavits, analysed and tabulated by the good folks at ADR. This contains the name, age, gender, educational background, profession, asset declaration, and criminal cases.
But candidates often provide contradictory and ambiguous information in their affidavits. It is time for the Election Commission to provide web applications for candidates to submit information, so validation can be quick and automated. If every citizen – from a taxpayer to an MNREGA worker – is asked to use mobile apps, why not candidates?
But even with all this, this basic information from affidavits is in no way enough to understand and assess the applicant.
Getting to know candidates over time
Voters do not get enough time to observe, listen and interact with candidates, especially since many of them do not engage with voters consistently over their five-year term, often getting visible only as soon as elections are announced.
As citizens, we must demand that political parties maintain a consistent and effective presence in every constituency throughout the term. By doing so, candidates and local leaders can earn the trust of voters. Otherwise, as Vikram Rai of Bangalore Apartments’ Federation (BAF) points out, we risk perpetuating the perception of “current heavyweight” versus “unknown lightweights,” forcing voters to choose between “anti-incumbency” and “leadership obscurity.”
Newbie candidates rarely have the financial resources or influence to reach a large audience beyond door-to-door visits. This lack of visibility results in an uneven playing field for those candidates. This is unfair to voters too, who deserve access to a diverse pool of capable candidates.
Regular interaction with politicians
Political parties need to facilitate voter familiarity with their candidates. For example, town hall meetings could serve as a useful tool for voters to assess candidate performance, and ideally, should be conducted annually. However, for this to be possible, every constituency requires effective opposition; the parties that lose should ensure continuity and accountability.
In the recent months, many civic groups have shown initiative in organising townhall events to meet and interact with all candidates. Unfortunately, the Election Commissions’ strict guidelines and lack of support stopped some of them from taking place. Both political parties and the administration must encourage citizen groups’ participation in the party/candidate engagement process with clear rules and conditions.
Need for better information online
While some candidates have websites often with tall claims, there is no single place to figure out what the candidate stands for (not their parties!) – what their vision is and how they plan to represent our interests as their legislator.
The Election Commission could allow every candidate to submit additional information like an elevator pitch, resume and summary of commitments. I would like to see candidates respond to prompts like award submissions – “Describe how the candidate demonstrates ethics”!
Appraising candidates who are already MLAs
The most important job of an MLA is to represent their constituents in the state Assembly. The three main functions of the assembly, and hence responsibility of the MLA, is legislation, finance and inquiry.
An MLA should help in raising public awareness on important issues, highlighting shortcomings in implementation of laws and promises made. What debates do they participate in and what questions they ask on various topics for the government to respond to?
How does an MLA function in the various committees they are part of or the ministries they head? What bills do they facilitate in passing? Have they ever attempted to introduce a private members bill on a subject of public importance?
Committee meeting minutes, reports submitted by committees, cabinet meeting minutes etc. are also indicators of the performance of MLAs or ministers. If not part of the government, MLAs can contribute to the house debates on budgets and financial issues. Such information is either not online, or not organised properly in a searchable, structured data format.
EC should consider getting such information tabulated by the assembly staff itself and put out on a yearly basis and made mandatory to include in the affidavit.
There is also the 2 crore-a year MLA Development Fund. However, there is no audit of these funds and the details are not available in the public domain. It will help if the affidavit submitted to the Election Commission has an audited report of the LAD funds!
Finally, which candidate is conscious of existential threats?
And last, in the era of great challenges – from pandemics to climate change, which candidate has the political imagination to deal with these?
As another friend Sameer Shisodia says: “Our politicians – by and large – are stuck in the thinking, goals and imaginations of the 80s and 90s where “infrastructure”, “growth” etc. meant a certain set of things, throwing more and more concrete at our landscapes and into our cities was the way to go and mega this and that was the aspiration.” The realities, limits of the planet, and the newer imagination around those are eluding our politicians.
The real tragedy is while they continue to sell their ludicrous ideas, many of us continue to buy the same. Unless we ask the right questions, and set the right expectations, they will not change. With some shift in public discourse in the recent past towards sustainability, some manifestos do mention plans like cycle lanes and rainwater harvesting.
Still, real change will come only when candidates internalise these issues and are armed with the understanding and the capacity to address them, even as they navigate the messy swamps of a partisan political ecosystem.