Greatest democratic show on earth to begin
(C. Uday Bhaskar is a New Delhi-based strategic analyst. The views expressed in the column are his own.)
If elections are the single most visible element of the democratic experience, the biggest show on earth is all set to unfold on Thursday when a large percentage of more than 700 million voters will participate in the first phase of the 15th Indian general elections to the Lok Sabha – the lower house of the Indian parliament.
It is expected that up to 400 million Indians will cast their votes and yes, many of them are among the poorest of the poor – afflicted by what is euphemistically referred to as the ‘DAD’ syndrome – those who earn a dollar a day.
But this in no way detracts from the excitement and enthusiasm with which the average Indian participates in the general election.
As elections go, there is nothing to match the scale and diversity of these mega events and all kinds of statistical records and distinctive accomplishments are achieved.
Elections are about who comes to power through the ballot box – but it also engenders the most vile, venal and reprehensible practices that range from intimidation and politically motivated killing of rival candidates to bribing and other forms of inducement.
One hapless candidate, Vijay Bahadur Sonker of the little known Indian Justice Party who had entered the fray from Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous state – was found hanging from a tree on April 13. Earlier a candidate from Orissa was killed by local left wing extremists.
But on balance, the Indian Election Commission does a highly commendable job over the one month long period – and the final phase will conclude in mid May when a new government will be in place in Delhi.
The ballot does triumph over the bullet in India every five years and this resilience makes it a distinctive entity in the troubled southern Asian region.
The principal contestation is between the Congress-led UPA coalition with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the helm (though Sonia Gandhi is the President of the Congress party and the main crowd puller) and the BJP-led NDA coalition whose PM in waiting is Lal Krishna Advani.
In the run up to the voting on April 16, the campaigning and sloganeering has been shrill and no-holds-barred.
The audio-visual medium provides a much wider cost-effective reach and TV debates are 24×7 in myriad languages. But it would be misleading to infer that TV is the only domain where the slug-fest is going on.
Much of India is neither glued to TV or cyber-space savvy and ultimately the rural voter at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum will determine who will form the government in Delhi.
The key states will be Uttar Pradesh (80 seats), Maharashtra (48), Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal (42 each), Bihar (40) and Tamil Nadu (39) that between them contribute almost 54 percent of the 543 member Lok Sabha.
Paradoxically, all these states have very strong regional parties and barring Andhra Pradesh where the Congress Party is in power currently, the two major national parties are on a weak wicket in these states.
Hence the relevance of the regional party in these elections. Most pre-poll surveys indicate that neither the Congress nor the BJP is likely to cross the 150 mark individually and hence a coalition government is inevitable.
Thus the birth of the ‘third’ and ‘fourth’ fronts which are a rainbow of regional and caste based groupings and they will be the critical ‘swing’ factor for forming the next government in Delhi.
The paradox continues, for despite the global perception that India has now entered the league of major powers, no single national issue dominates the current election campaigns and manifestos.
Employment and better socio-economic conditions encapsulated in the local jingles – ‘roti, paani, kapada, makaan, bijli, sadak’ (bread, water, clothing, housing, electricity, roads) – are the dominant themes and all kinds of inducements are on offer. These include rice at Rs 2 per kilogram and other subsidies – the fiscal deficit be damned!
On balance the elections will be free and fair and the penchant to play on identity – whether religion, caste or ethnicity will be strong. But the Indian voter is savvier with the passage of every such exercise and the communication revolution ranging from TV, radio and the mobile phone has introduced a level of connectivity and awareness that is unprecedented.
Yet the ultimate challenge is to ensure that the conduct of robust and enthusiastically participatory elections translates into equitable and corruption-free governance.
This Holy Grail has been elusive and hence the many distortions in the Indian democratic experience – but the contestation is a necessary first step and will be exhilarating.
Watch this space!