545 faces, not 3: Where the Indian elections went wrong

Published May 3, 2014
In the wake of a political vacuum, Indians are being forced to believe one individual will bring tumultuous change.
In the wake of a political vacuum, Indians are being forced to believe one individual will bring tumultuous change.

With just two of the 10 phases of the Great Indian Elections to go, we are at a unique vantage point to reflect this poll season.

An election that has been characterised by high turnouts in most parts of the country reinforces our people’s faith in democracy.

Strong anti-incumbency against the current government, large scale use of social media and multibillion dollar campaigns launched by not just main players, but smaller, regional parties has made these polls seem an even grandiose affair – a watershed election in distant public memory.

But dig deeper and the infallibilities that this election exemplifies come tumbling out, making the enthusiasm markedly misplaced.

The campaign itself is between faces and ideologies. A scion of the Gandhi family leads the deeply unpopular, incumbent Congress party – a campaign harping on positive social indicators but eclipsed by misrule, policy paralysis and profound arrogance of the decade-old United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

The other face of this election is what is being referred to as the undeniably strong “Modi wave”, the ubiquitous “Modi aane waala hai, ache din lane waala hai” (Modi is coming, good times await) exemplifies this sentiment.

The third side is the amorphous face of the regional players, of which India has plenty. This face takes different shapes; in the TV studio it is Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party. But it keeps changing faces as you move across States. Arguably, holding the key to these elections, this third front might decide the next resident of 7, Race Course Road, the residence of the Indian Prime Minister.

But, beyond the faces lies the burden of the ideologies that all these parties carry.

Congress isn’t getting into the governance argument, resorting rather to the oft used scaremongering around religion which isn’t misplaced. But by not delving into the misgivings of the last 10 years and cloaking behind minority rights and inclusivity, it is compartmentalising secularism and continues to preside over a decayed secular institutional framework.

While, granted that Modi might have stayed away from the communal exchanges, his aides haven’t. Principal amongst them is Amit Shah, pegged to be the second most-important man only after Narendra bhai himself, if the latter comes to power.

Shah has repeatedly spewed venom against the Muslim minority, forcing the Election Commission to bar him from campaigning (which was later revoked after his apology to the EC).

Another supporter, Giriraj Singh recently asked all Modi critics to leave for Pakistan. It is this rhetoric that vertically divides the Indian society, leading to a certain polarisation which gets manifested in the bigot talks on the streets and in middle-class drawing room conversations, of which, majority Indians including the writer is most fearsome of.

Also read: What taking potshots at Pakistan really means

The farcical notions of ideology and one PM solution have diverted the debate from the principal question of institutions, particularly the Parliament, for which this massive exercise is being undertaken in the first place.

Two critical points suggest that the next Parliament in its composition and thinking would not be very different from the last one.

First, change depends on the policies that political parties pursue in the coming Parliament. It is astonishing that a piece as critical as the manifestos got little coverage and even lesser scrutiny in the mainstream press, which reveals how similar they are in almost all spheres of economy, social welfare and foreign policy items. As a matter of fact, on issues like rights-based development approach, employment generation and urbanisation, both principal parties seem to be on the same page.

On corruption, another principal agenda, all political entities have the same solution: Lokpal (Ombudsman). But Lokpal is a complaining authority, not a preventing one. A change in parliament may hence, not necessarily mean a change in policy.

Second, the fabric of the Parliament needs alteration if the contagion of fecklessness, which has in the past shrouded national institutions, has to go. Data from the Parliamentary Research Service showed that the productive time of the Lok Sabha in last five years stood at 61 per cent; the worst in over 50 years.

Two other indicators to judge the efficacy of the Parliament – time spent on debates discussing legislations and Question-Hour data portrays a grim picture.

Thirty-six per cent of the total bills passed in the house were debated for less than thirty minutes (20 Bills were passed in less than five) and 60 per cent of the time kept separate for MPs to ask questions from the Minister was wasted due to house adjournments.

Many intellectuals argue that if the Parliament functioned and committees such as the Public Accounts Committee did a good job, policy paralysis wouldn’t have taken place. One can, thus, not even begin to write on the primacy of good 545 parliamentarians and not one.

One of the greatest churnings of the last three years has been the shift in public discourse emanating from the public outrage on the rhetoric of caste, class and religion to two critical issues of corruption and women empowerment.

It was expected that during the largest test of institutions, these two issues would be reflected. But as it stands today, an average 32 per cent of candidates of parties have criminal records – 21 per cent with serious criminal charges.

Interestingly, the number of women candidates being fielded in the Parliament has increased only marginally – from 6.89 per cent to 7.83 per cent. A corrupt Parliament with fewer women parliamentarians is alarming.

In the wake of a huge political vacuum, the people of this country are being forced to believe that one individual, whichever party it may be, will bring tumultuous change in governance of this country.

Also read: Manifestos and reality: Analysing Indian Elections promises

Unfortunately, many are overlooking the limitations of the Prime Minister’s Office.

In a fractured, federal structure like ours, with many checks and balances, there is very little that the Prime Minister alone can do without taking the multitudes of political and public opinion. A strong leader might improve systems but strong institutions like the Parliament cannot be ameliorated by a single man.

Even in issues which might be considered as exclusive to the Central government viz: Finance and External Affairs, there is very little leeway provided by the internal dynamics of the country.

The Goods and Service Tax bill has been in the pipeline since 2000 but it couldn’t be passed due to resistance offered by different State leaders.

The Indian PM had to drop the Teesta Water treaty on water sharing and the Constitution (119th) Amendment Bill (acquiring of territories by India and transfer of certain territories to Bangladesh) after Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal burst out against the Prime Minister and Asom Gana Parishad, a party with just one MP, disrupted the floor of the house.

Bringing the two narratives together, India – a vibrant democracy – is reflected by the strength of her institutions. In the last 10 years, the vacuum caused by a weak Parliament has resulted in the interventions by the Judiciary and Civil Society.

A sustained campaign to choose between the three faces, when 545 candidates should have been grilled means a non-functioning Parliament that will lead to little change.

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