National Elections Test Indian Democracy

There are a few presumptions associated with Indian “participative democracy” that need urgent redress.

As Indians cast their ballots in national elections which will occur until May 12, the nation’s Election Commission estimates there are 814 million eligible voters, the largest election in the world.

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An artist in Amritsar, Punjab, painting portraits of Rahul Gandhi, left, vice president of Indian National Congress, Arvind Kejriwal, center, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, and Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Credit: Raminder Pal Singh/European Pressphoto Agency

The nation’s electoral population is the largest in the world. And, by the sheer size of numbers and the spectacular diversity they represent, India’s will be the most fascinating poll exercise in the world.

Interesting in association has been the generous use of the term “Participative Democracy” which has been doing the rounds among the intelligentsia and the media of late. It’s widely feared that democracy risks being reduced to a parody is it isn’t truly “participative.”

Every election, every political party brings out a manifesto. Now, let’s examine what a manifesto does. While, on the face of it, a manifesto details what a political party stands for and promises to achieve if voted to power, in reality, it panders to the whims of a niche electorate.

So, a party’s manifesto is aimed to stir sentiments of a “target” electorate enraged for being marginalized. Similarly, another party’s manifesto will pander to “its target” electorate’s sensibilities and so on and forth. The polarizations are complete and absolute in their demarcations.

From among others, Aam Aadmi Party has been insistent with its seemingly new-fangled pitch on the need for India’s democracy to be “participative.” Democracy, any which way one see, should be “participative,” as a rule.

That, in India it isn’t “participative” is a widely-held belief modeled mostly on issues such as the “use of NOTA,” the electorate’s “inability to recall” an elected candidate for non-performance and “money and alcohol” being pooled in to sway voters. These factors indicate the electorate is deprived of the right to freely exercise franchise and a corresponding lack of control on his or her choice of candidate.

In a democracy, every political party has a pitch that appeases an electorate which has been loyal to it for a set of reasons. That the reasons may be founded on some absolutely wrong notions or fascist don’t matter. Traders have been known to be Bharatiya Janata Party loyalists.

Muslims and Christians have, historically, been Congress supporters. And, the “hurt” local has had his interests served by regional parties such as the Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in Maharashtra and their counterparts elsewhere.

Those who insist on a democracy to be “participative” feel it can be achieved by simply empowering the electorate to exercise the choice of “None of the above,” the ability to recall an elected candidate or reject all contesting candidates and stop the sway of money and alcohol during election time.

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There are a few presumptions associated with “participative democracy” that need urgent redress.

Firstly, it’s presumed that everyone in India has a voter’s card and will exercise his or her right to franchise. Secondly, it’s presumed that everyone is an informed voter and exercises his or her right to franchise keeping a political party’s achievements and a candidate’s true potential in mind before casting one’s vote.

Thirdly, it’s presumed that everyone who is a major and casts a vote isn’t biased or prejudiced by caste, creed, race, religion, place of birth and other misguiding factors. If money and alcohol should not, ideally, sway an electorate’s opinion, nor should caste, religion, creed, place of birth.

Fourthly, it’s presumed the electorate, educated or otherwise, is informed about his or her decision of choice and exercises right to franchise armed with an informed consent. All the presumptions lack any form of validation and can be easily questioned if not quashed.

Democracies all over the world struggle with border problems with their immediate neighbors and issues with migration. The most developed have a tough time upholding human rights of immigrants and aliens, particularly in keeping with global conventions and foreign policy norms while, at the same time, quelling popular simmering within its local population that feels wrongly deprived of a right, it feels is, of “first and exclusive use.”

Political parties all over the democratic world have to pander to sentiments, however autocratic and despotic, to garner poll support. India’s isn’t, in that way, as unique as may seem.

Poll manifestos aren’t binding on political parties and promises are made, as a rule, to be broken. An ideal democracy is one in which the electorate is empowered enough to develop an informed consent, is truly free of prejudice and exercises the right to franchise. Voting will, in time, become mandatory in India but that will not guarantee freedom from prejudice. Prejudice is an inalienably human scourge.

Also, prejudice has a symbiotic relationship with politics all over the democratic world. An agenda sans prejudice seems utopian and, correspondingly, unreal.

In that context, India’s is real. And, with its sheer size and diversity, its poll processes – as participative as can get – are all set to underline the power of democracy. Who could do it better than the world’s largest?

Gajanan Khergamker is an independent editor and legal counsel with over three decades of experience. He heads DraftCraft – an India-based media-legal think tank. His areas of expertise include policy, inclusion, foreign affairs, law and diversity. His firm’s website is www.draftcraft.in and he can be reached at gajanan@draftcraft.inRead other articles by Gajanan.

  • KLRajpal

    VOTE FOR NOTA.
    Most political parties continue to field corrupt and criminal candidates. If the voter is convinced that no candidate is acceptable, she must register a vote of rejection for all candidates and “Vote for NOTA”.

    If, the votes polled by a candidate declared elected officially, is LESS than the votes in favor of NOTA then, the winner candidate has lost his moral authority to represent the voters and he must be made to resign under PEACEFUL MORAL PUBLIC PRESSURE. This is a nonviolent approach as practiced by the father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi during our freedom struggle and by Anna Hazara in recent years.