(Not an) Election Festival

By Geeta Padmanabhan


The media have been calling it the Election Festival. What we saw yesterday, the first phase of polling, was far from one. Naxal attacks left 17 dead in the polling areas.

Of course, Indian elections are a huge, enviable exercise in democracy with a mind-boggling 700 million official voters on the rolls. That should come as a lesson for a lot of countries. But it has several serious shortcomings in the very nature of its party system, its parliamentary form of governance. Ironically, the glimmer of hope comes from these very ills that seem to pull the system into a morass.

Take the case of the “party leaper“. There are some who have sided with every shade of ideology over the years that it is impossible to vote for them on the basis of party affiliation. For the first time, you hear “We will align with like-minded candidates after the elections” being said openly.

There are charge-sheeted criminals who have been given tickets under the argument that their claim can be rejected only when they are finally convicted. In India that is 25 years into the future, if at all.

When there is a proliferation of political parties, how is the voter supposed to keep track of their performance overall? Since ideology has been safely dropped in the rubbish bin (ideology has no place when aligning with regional parties to form a government in the centre), how is he expected to vote a party because of what it stands for, in some abstract terms?

Our young voters – 10 crores – are not swayed by the “We fought for freedom” spiel. They are definitely not bothered about hindutva and the Ram temple. What is one more or less temple? After the Supreme Court’s embarrassing questions on the issue, they are disgusted with the reservation policy. The ground reality is reservation does not necessarily fetch them jobs or promotions. Merit does.

Increasingly elections – even national ones – are about local issues. People want roads, safety in the streets, uninterrupted electricity and water supply, a good transport system, schools and jobs. They want to be alive and working and raising families and traveling in reasonable comfort.

A lot of them are also thinking how politicians manage to amass wealth. I get asked this question often in my classes.

So whom will the votes go to?

At the lowest level, to those who can give them cash, biryani and liquor. One of the homes in Thirumangalam (elected an MLA) had a board saying “12 votes here”.

Second, to an extent, the party. “The party gives me contracts, turns its head away when I quarry sand illegally, awards me precious broadband citing some long-lost rule. My family has always voted this party in. It is smart enough to win.”

Third, the candidate.

[a] The candidate is a movie God. Every voter asked in Thirupati said he would vote Chiranjeevi.

[b] The candidate has won from this constituency for ever, his/her name is associated with this place. They have brought in changes, have poured money for improving facilities, never mind where it came from or what they did as union ministers responsible for the entire country. Which is why Sharad Pawar need not campaign in his constituency of Baramati in Maharashtra though the Vidharba region saw all those farmers’ deaths while he was union agri minister. That is why Renuka Choudhry is confident of winning her Khammam seat though safety of women and children has never been so bad as it is now. She was union minister for Women and Child welfare. That is why Arjun Singh won again and again while national education levels have remained abysmally low. That is why. … Their constituencies are safe, even if the country is not.

Then come the independents, dismissed as “spoilers” by Dr. Manmohan Singh in his new aggressive avatar. He may have a point. Independents stand for elections for nefarious reasons. But he should have gone through the list this time.

The current list includes: Meera Sanyal, Captain Gopinath, Sarath Babu, NS Venkatraman, Dr Tirumala Raya Halemane, Dr Mona Shah (Professionals Party)…  This augers well. Good, solid citizens may now feel emboldened to try to clear the murky waters of Indian politics and governance. If the campaigning styles are any indication, what these candidates say sounds like a blessing. Not having to please the party bosses, not having to wait for the high-command must make them free to do what they have set out to.

What do they want? As Meera Sanyal said, “I am not standing against Milind or Rawale. I am standing for Mumbai. All I say is demand the same standards of our political leaders that we are demanding of leaders in other fields… corporate, sports or films.”

These “spoilers” hope to provide that leadership.

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