India at crossroads

India at crossroads
Highlights

General Elections 2014: India at Crossroads. Decades down the line, for the remaining few great grand dads, who are in their post-80s, the current political scenario must be bizarre with thousands of candidates representing hundreds of parties fighting for people’s attention and 543 seats in the Lower House of Parliament.

For those who had voted in the first Lok Sabha elections in independent India in 1951-52 and continued to exercise their franchise ever since, the 2014 polls must be as historic as those held at the height of euphoric freedom.

Decades down the line, for the remaining few great grand dads, who are in their post-80s, the current political scenario must be bizarre with thousands of candidates representing hundreds of parties fighting for people’s attention and 543 seats in the Lower House of Parliament.

The difference then and now is as much as nascence and maturity: A just-born democracy being nurtured by great leaders of the time with the sole intention of giving the country a pride of place in the comity of nations; and India emerging as the world’s largest democracy with many firsts to its credit.

Since 1951, every general election has turned out to be a test for the country’s democracy and its institutions, particularly to the Election Commission of India that takes up the arduous task of holding parliamentary and legislative elections on a scale that is mindboggling, and to the people who are supposed to choose a right candidate to represent their interests at state and national level.

The once-in-a-five-year poll test has always yielded mixed results except in the first few decades. While every election has strengthened democracy and allowed it to take deeper roots, those who have started reaping its benefits and enjoying its fruits have turned greedy. The noble aim of serving the people, preached and practiced by leaders of freedom movement -- some of them had even sacrificed their wealth and lives for country’s sake --has become a means to enrich themselves. And, in the process, politics has been turned into a profitable family business.

Like a few tycoons controlling the corporate world, a few families dominate the political scene, leaving little chance to outsiders for whom the vested interests are too impregnable to penetrate. Thus we have two sides – one that fights with self-preservation instinct and the other that tries to make forays into rival arenas – representing various groups, classes, interests and unbinding ideologies that keep shifting from time to time and according to convenience.

Opportunism has become the byword and at no time it is more pronounced than it is now, in the 2014 elections. It is in stark contrast with 1951 when people went to the first Lok Sabha poll in a free India with a hope for a new resurgent nation, based on equality, secularism, democracy, inclusive development, among many other such ideals.

At least for a couple of decades, the spirit of freedom struggle had powered the political parties, with the Indian National Congress (INC) remaining the undisputed force to lead the country and lift it from centuries of colonial subjugation. The INC had the right credentials, moral authority, public support and, more importantly, stalwarts and luminaries of the independence movement were at the helm. They had had their differences, but the petty tiffs had rarely percolated down and caused undue consternation in the party’s rank and file or affected the government’s functioning, although policy flip-flaps and faux pas did invite censure from opposition leaders who were known for their oratory, decency and decorum inside and outside the parliament.

That was history, which is unlikely to repeat itself for the simple reason that dedicated leaders are far from few and political honesty is at a premium. On the other hand, some of the elected have created history for all wrong reasons. If some have criminal background, some others are involved in scams, scandals and rackets. But still they stand for elections hoping to win and unashamedly approach the people for votes because the raison d’etre of the current crop of leaders is to stay in power, by hook or by crook.

If power corrupts, it has absolutely corrupted the country. Anything is possible and passable to gain and retain political power. Like everything is fair in love and war, politics has turned out to be the art of weaving magic with words and empty promises and the science of numbers. If winnability is the secret and the mantra of a successful political career, generation after generation of leaders has succeeded by chanting it. The result is ability and capability to be a true leader of the masses have become secondary in the quest for power and the three ideals of good democracy –for the people, by the people and to the people – are either diluted or subverted.

The ongoing parliamentary elections are witnessing the disturbing trend in which money, pressure and subterraneous factors have increased their share of influencing voters’ decisions more than the candidates’ worth. A plethora of parties, not even worth their names, and an equal number of nondescript contestants – and their numbers have been going up in geometric proportion every five years – are making a mockery of Indian democracy.

That could be a cynical view. But the way the system functions, such conclusion is inevitable in spite of the fact that there is no alternative to democracy in this country. But the issue is how to make it more responsive to people’s demands and needs and compel it fulfill their hopes and aspirations.

That is not a million dollar question but a billion plus people’s dilemma. After electing representatives from various parties to the Lok Sabha for 15 times, we are at a crossroads. Not because we are stuck in a time warp, but because of diverse forces pulling the country in different directions, often to the detriment of own.

The 16th Lok Sabha composition, which will be known by May-end, will define the path India will take. Although a BJP-led coalition is tipped to form the next government under the stewardship of Narendra Modi, his record of handling Gujarat riots in 2002 and his party’s right-wing and perceived anti-minorities policies are a cause for concern for many sections of society and intelligentsia in India and abroad.

Opposition to Modi becoming prime minister if the BJP and its allies win people’s mandate is well known. In fact, what the party believes the orchestrated campaign against him has reached a feverish pitch with many more seats in the Hindi heartland at stake in the next few days. If the die is not already cast in favour of Modi in the six phases of Lok Sabha poll that were already held, BJP’s arch enemies, particularly the Congress, has every chance of throwing a spanner in the saffron party’s works.

Even though, theoretically, such opportunity exists, the issue is whether Congress would get the required number in parliament to put up Rahul Gandhi to step into the shoes of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh? The grand old party, carrying a load of anti-incumbency and bagsful of scandals, is itself skeptical and has left the backdoor open for an entry into a yet-to-be-formalized so-called secular front to end Modi’s Delhi dream.

But when there are too many aspirants – from Mulayam Singh of Samajwadi Party to Mayawati of Bahujan Samajwadi Party, and from Jayalalithaa of AIADMK to Mamata Banerjee of Trinamool Congress – to rule the country, the government that can be expected of these leaders is nothing but a hotchpotch. If we go by the past experience of one major party engaging others in a coalition, nursing allied leaders’ egos and putting up with their tantrums and demands, there would be little governance and most of the time goes towards pacifying partners to stay together.

But in a country that is increasingly being dominated by regional parties which want their writ run at national level and whose support is vital to form and run the Central government, it is doubtful whether the national parties will ever get a majority to form a government on their own.

In such a scenario, disparate parties coming together to form a government to keep others out of power is not ruled out, though it is undesirable. Since they romp to power with different agendas, they insist on implementing their programmes, often to the detriment of national and economic interests.

That brings us back to the issues raised in the beginning of this article whether we can claim to be a mature democracy with our representatives behaving responsibly; or, are we still trying to evolve into a cohesive polity that encompasses the social and economic interests of all people living in this country. Either way, the political scene that is likely to emerge post-2014 Lok Sabha polls, will show where we stand.

However, what should be clear to political stakeholders is the election marks the beginning of a silent revolution that judges leaders by their performance, not by their promises and poll sops, and questions their credibility and accountability.

In fact, it’s long overdue and for years, political power has bestowed upon a chosen few a semi-god status making them more equal than others. Surely, 2014 is not going to cleanse the rotten system; still there are dozens of candidates with criminal antecedents; money, liquor, inducements are still playing influential roles in the voting process; caste and creed have not been kept out of campaigns; decency has been thrown to wind. But all these have been recognized as toxic elements that are poisoning the system and now people are aware that how systematic efforts are being made to undermine the democratic process. The awareness should help detox the system in the coming years.

Back to 1951, the issues were different, the main focus being nation building. Now, thanks to development plans, we have reached a take-off stage that needs economic thrust, a decisive leadership that looks at the future, without wallowing in the past, and lead a youthful population. It is a challenging task whoever takes it up irrespective of party affiliation. As voters, it’s our responsibility to make the right decision that should not be regretted later.

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