What Awaits India on 16th May

The election campaign is entering its last phase and the gloves are off. In a sense, the last mile campaign issues feed upon the nature of the media coverage; there is the mad rush of the media channels to get a quote from the other dramatis personae to a quote from someone else and, thus, merely going round and round in this vein.

Then, there is the usual hyped up media coverage as to who would form government and who won’t.

The election issues, being shaped through this endless round of sound-bites for yet another sound-bite, are turning out to be the shibboleths perennially mouthed by different political parties to demonise their opponents; these shibboleths, thus, give an identity polarising coloration to different segments of the Indian society. The way these issues – secularism versus pseudo-secularism, communalism versus cultural broad-mindedness, casteism versus social progressivism, corruption versus good governance, political autocracy versus empowerment et cetera et cetera – are being framed makes these elections all of a piece of the preceding ones.

The other defining feature of the ongoing party slugfest is to never answer the question directly but to tell that the accuser is far worse on that very count. One is hearing even less of the Aam Admi Party and of the new brand of system-changing politics that this party, supposedly, represents.

The reason for the masses being sought to be psychologically conditioned by the same trite, hackneyed phraseology and by the promise that the challenger is better than the incumbent is due to the nature of electioneering which is determined by the party system as it has evolved today.

The electioneering is carried out in a demagogic mode whilst the grassroots’ party workers remain the lowest and the least empowered in its hierarchy. It manifests itself in the near universal phenomenon, the Aam Admi Party included, of the parachuted celebrities, preferably celluloid, – to the consternation of the party workers – into their constituencies having very little political grassroots’ work experience; this phenomenon is also witnessed in the bringing in of the candidates with entrenched family lineages. All parties are, without any pretence whatsoever, talking about the caste or religious combinations in the constituencies of interest.

Such pattern of electioneering is bound to lead to demagogy and rhetoric and to be divisive and polarising. Smart coverage by some TV reporters has shown that the ordinary voter has complete disconnect with the local leaders or, even, the candidates being fielded by different parties. Another characteristic of the political mobilisation is the creation and the reinforcement of “vote banks” of religious and community-based groups amongst the rural and poorer sections of urban voters loyal to the family or a particular party; this reinforcement is done through some local development work and, more so, through advancement of segmented group interests – hardly the way to create a larger national consciousness of the kind typifying Gandhiji’s grassroots’ mobilisation. In such “vote bank” areas, the so-called development issues like road, electricity, water et cetera cast a pale shadow over the life of the local community; the images beamed on the television screens do not give the impression that the earlier promises made by the political parties have really been made good.

And, this political mobilisation gets accompanied by the predictable round of violence on religious, caste or ethnic grounds.

Taking up my personal example: although assured, repeatedly, by the Election Commission officials that my name is in the constituency’s voters’ list, I found out, on the eve of the polling, that it was missing. The voters’ list contained entries which are nothing short of hilarious; one female voter had the photograph of a moustachioed man against her name! But, perhaps, it was just as well that I could not vote. Because, I did not know any of the candidates contesting from my constituency and nobody, not even their volunteers, made any effort to either contact me personally or even so much as to drop a leaflet about their platforms.

To say, as candidates often do, that the constituency is huge and, therefore, impossible for covering individual voters is unconvincing since the real reason is that the pattern of electioneering is demagogic in the extreme; in fact, every candidate, or at least the party the person belongs to, keeps a particular constituency under observation for years on end as a potential electoral battleground and it is conceivable, only in the Indian context, that the candidate or the party concerned feel no compulsion to create a sufficient body of party workers/volunteers for the propagation of their platforms even for scheduled elections.

Thus, there is no campaigning at the voter’s doorstep and the candidates target community groups, which are largely in rural areas or in lower-middle-class or poorer urban areas because of their preponderance in numbers and the ease for demagogic electioneering.

In this context, advocacy of the Election Commission for everybody to vote essentially falls flat: it is like a vegetable vendor responding, to a complaint about his rotten vegetables, by saying that the customer should grow his/her own vegetables if not satisfied with what is on offer!

The other feature of this campaign, like the previous ones, has been the continuing domination of the money power and the muscle power. It is apparent that the money power is being leveraged, in these elections, by the BJP because the business seems to have sensed that he is on a winning streak. But, the pattern of financing is no different for the other parties either – and, that includes the Aam Admi Party; for the latter, it is particularly worrying that there is a lot of NRI funding coming in support of the party’s candidates because this would lead to the non-resident expatriates Indian community developing excessive influence on its policies and politics.

So, what can we expect on the 16th May?

As of now, the picture does not appear to be very clear although the advantage is clearly with BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. To what extent he, or for that matter, any other party would be in a position to make a difference to the state of affairs, remains somewhat questionable. First of all, it will be a coalition government comprising a large number of coalition partners of dubious distinction and integrity. Our fractious politics, too, will not undergo any change, what with its penchant for splitting and re-splitting of political groups which sustain themselves on mobilisation based on appeal to sentiments of narrow identities and through building a nexus with moneybags and muscle-power in all corners of the country; nor, would the balance of political power in the Rajya Sabha change substantially in the coming years.

The last ten years of the present Government have shown that the politics has become highly personalised and government decisions are coloured by either personal prejudices or calculations of political advantage at the next round of local or regional elections; that, too, is unlikely to change because the dramatis personae also remain the same.

It is a few individuals, who can be counted on one’s fingers right across the country, who dominate the country’s politics at different levels – and, thus, the national affairs. The sordid calculations behind the manner in which a new province in the country was created is the sign of our times; when the Telangana Bill was being introduced by the Prime Minister in Lok Sabha, he was surrounded by the Congress Members of Parliament, who should have been in their allotted seats, to prevent him from being assaulted by the opponents of that Bill which, itself, was passed, amidst a deafening din, by a voice vote; one can imagine to what state the constitutional processes have been brought down.

The most distressing form of the dysfunctionality of a constitutional organ like the parliament has been witnessed in recent years to which the BJP, as well as the other political parties, have contributed hugely; ironically, they have accused, in their Manifesto, the Congress party of degrading the constitutional organs in the country! All that is unlikely to change because of the structure of political parties remains unchanged.

There have been some writings about the possible impact of the Aam Admi Party in the elections. Unless it is a huge conspiracy on the part of the media, as alleged by its vocal and vociferous exponents, its impact at the grassroots appears to be minimal.

The only way in which things can be systemically changed is by reforming the party system so as to ensure that these parties become genuinely democratic for the grassroots’ party members to feel empowered and to elect their local and national leaders in a manner so as to control them constantly.

There is also the need, following from this, for the party financing to be reformed so as to ensure that all big funders are excluded and that the parties are forced to raise funds for their activities, including electioneering, through raising funds in small amounts, say Rs. 10-20,000, or less, from the local communities rather than having funds raised either from capitalists or, even, the non-resident Indian community. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote, in his autobiography, that Gandhiji used to have the Congress party accounts audited by a British company to make the point that he would have his enemy to vouch for his financial rectitude. One needs to see the Election Commission website to be aware of the reality of party funding and of the internal party elections.

In sum, parliamentary elections are less important than the internal party elections if people’s faith in our parliamentary system is to be restored. That lesson, taught by Gandhiji through the example of his unique and contrasting form political mobilisation, has been lost and this has been painfully brought home once again in recent months despite the grandiloquent claims by various political parties about India being at the cusp of a new dawn.

Yogendra Kumar is former Indian ambassador to Philippines

1 Comment

  • Good analysis. However, we need more participation by the educated middle class in the political parties. This is possible only when the parties are run like corporates (? or, democratic institutions) rather than family businesses which could offer the middle class youth a career option. Why should politics not be a career option ? Why should we allow uncontrolled and unaccounted loot of public money and resources in the name of public service ?

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