September 5, 2011constitutionalismcorruptiondemocracyelectionsgovernanceIndiaPublic Policy

Middle India’s political game-changer

Why the Annawalas must endorse individual candidates in the coming elections

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

This is the original draft of today’s DNA column.

Anna’s candidates

It’s the season for game-changers. Everyone is proposing one. Here’s mine.

After ending his fast at New Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan last month, Anna Hazare announced that electoral reforms would be next on his agenda, followed by issues of decentralisation of power, education reforms, labour and farmers’ issues.” If that sounds like a political manifesto, it is. For that reason it must be pursued politically.

Now, Hazare said he can’t afford to stand in elections because he can’t buy votes. Whatever that says about his attitude towards electoral democracy and whatever it says about the claim that the whole nation is behind him, he is entitled to stay outside the ring. His new colleagues, the leaders of the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement, say that they do not intend for it to become a political party. Which too is fine, for there is value in a non-partisan nationwide movement that eschews identity politics and demands good governance. Will they perhaps endorse a political party? After all, with the UPA government brazening it over a series of huge corruption scandals, will they say let’s give the BJP a chance”? It is unclear if the IAC or its leaders intend to endorse any political party, but we should not be surprised if they decide not to. Perhaps some of the people on the stage at Ramlila Maidan will contest elections but that’s not going to make a big difference.

The real game changer is this: the IAC should announce that it will endorse one candidate in every single Lok Sabha and state assembly constituency. Not on the basis of party affiliations, but on the basis of its assessment of who among all the candidates is the best choice.

It should declare the criteria it will use: including personal integrity, track record and acceptance of its agenda of reforms. Its leaders can interview potential candidates. It can organise public debates and town-hall meetings to let members of the public find out more about the candidates and their views. And it can adopt a transparent process to select who it will endorse. The typically absentee middle class voter often says why vote when my one vote doesn’t count”. IACs endorsement can turn the argument on its head because now, every one vote counts” towards picking the best (okay, the least-worst) candidate from what is available.

IACs endorsement might not work in all constituencies. However, there are a few dozen Lok Sabha seats where the urban middle class can make a difference. In such constituencies, even if IACs endorsement means 20,000 more votes, on the margin all political parties are likely to put up candidates that are more likely to be blessed by Anna. There are two considerations for this strategy to work effectively: First, IAC must announce that it intends to endorse a candidate well before nominations close. This will increase the chances that party tickets will be given to the cleaner’ candidates. Second, the endorsement itself must be made very close to polling day, so that the fear of not being endorsed keeps the candidates from resorting to identity politics or vote-buying.

Here, the IAC can leverage on the commendable work being done by a number of NGOs in the areas of monitoring and reforming electoral processes. The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) discloses the background (criminal, financial and educational) of candidates who are contesting elections”. After securing a Supreme Court judgement in 2003 mandating that all candidates declare criminal cases pending against them, their financial assets and liabilities, and educational qualifications, it monitors elections in all Lok Sabha and state assembly elections across the country. This information is available from ADRs website and also by SMS. The Liberty Institute, a New Delhi-based think tank, manages, a portal that compiles data from affidavits filed by candidates in various elections. There is, of course, the Election Commission’s own website, hardly user-friendly, but an authoritative source of information on candidates.

Now, no data are perfect and no information is entirely accurate. Nevertheless, the availability of these resources allow civil society groups to make decisions with a far greater degree of objectivity than otherwise. An ordinary citizen may be uninformed or uninterested in doing this kind of homework. However, the same citizen might be inclined to follow the lead provided by IACs leaders.

What if this doesn’t work? What if people don’t vote as recommended by IAC? Well, that’ll show that voters have other things on their minds, not just the agenda espoused by Hazare and his colleagues. What if people do vote and the endorsed candidate doesn’t win? If that happens, it means that Hazare’s message does not appeal to a majority of voters. Fair, fair.

And what if the candidate changes his colours once elected and forgets about the promises he made? This is quite possible. But because most politicians want to get re-elected, this is a multi-round game. If IAC can expressly warn that it will punish those who break their promises by necessarily endorsing someone else the next time, the MPs are more likely to do what they said they’d do. For a threat of future non-endorsement to work, IAC must continue to command the loyalty of the middle class citizens.

In other words, if the awakened Middle Indian goes back to sleep, then this game changer won’t work. But then, if the awakened Middle Indian goes back to sleep, nothing else will.

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