Indian Elections-a Discordant Note
Posted on 1-June-2014
From the seventh of April till the twelfth of May this year, on nine days, around 550 million adults in India voted to elect 543 members of the lower house of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha. For its sheer scale, for the efficiency and trouble free organisation--barring an extremely small number of unpleasant incidents--the exercise attracted favourable comment, some genuinely felt and some with an undertone of condescension, from across what the Americans have the new habit of calling the civilised world. In a book just published one of India's previous chief election commissioners has written with a justifiable sense of achievement, the logistics involved in organising these elections in different locales, some very inaccessible through modern means of transportation, in the varied geographic and meteorological or climatic conditions of India. Due to the difficulties involved in moving men and material--personnel for manning polling stations or, now the necessary number of electronic voting machines and ancillary equipment, it is simply not possible to ensure that all the voters across the country vote on the same day.
Yet it is not due to reasons of logistics--they present not insurmountable difficulties--that the voting has to be staggered but it is because of the necessity of deploying large numbers of policemen and paramilitary forces at polling stations that the polling cannot take place simultaneously at the enormously large number of polling stations in the country--there simply are not so many policemen of different formations available. There are some constituencies, described as sensitive or extremely sensitive, which require additional precautions. The question that the intelligentsia in India, so ready to preen itself when India is described--particularly in the western news media--as the world's largest democracy and and its political system praised for these periodic and free and fair elections, is why the polling stations have to be so heavily policed, not by the civil police only but by armed constabulary and paramilitary forces. They have to be there to prevent violence between rival candidates or their supporters or to eliminate the possibility of what in the Indian context is called booth capturing or of otherwise coercing voters.
If, as is said, democracy were about reasoned debate and about winning the support of people by proposing ideas about public policies and about ideals of government, or if democracy were about men seeking power by luring the voter into electing them to manage the public affairs of a community or a combination of these, then the main activity during an election should be addressing the electorate through spoken or written word. Even in one degenerate form, as is not unknown in Indian elections, it can involve distributing cash or alcohol among the voters to win their votes. There should by any means be no room for violence of the kind that security forces are deployed for preventing during Indian elections--and we are talking here not of the kind of violence that terrorists or revolutionary extremists may commit with the aim of preventing elections altogether but of more mundane kind of violence that rival candidates and their supporters might commit if there were not a heavy presence of security forces. This proneness towards violence is a symptom of a deeper malaise in Indian society.
Despite all the gains made by the Indian political system in the last six decades--smooth transfer of power between losers and winners in elections, keeping the military out of politics, proving the cassandras about the unity of India or about the country's ability to maintain and uphold a constitution wrong, the country's politicians have by and large yet to cultivate the habit of self-restraint in their public behaviour and be guided by the belief that certain norms of public conduct must be upheld under all circumstances. If they did that they would not only not use violence for political gains but would also not nurture criminals in their entourage over whom they are not always able to exercise control. Beyond that they would be more sensitive to public opinion. Such a crop of politicians would see no need for encouraging their supporters to get violent either during elections or at any other time. There is no reason yet to hope that the new lot elected to govern India will be any more self-restrained and responsive to public opinion than those whom the Indian voter has just thrown out.
The malaise may have even deeper cultural roots. For all the emphasis that high Hindu culture--this is admittedly an atrocious expression but there does not seem to be another to describe the the vedantic-upanishadic-brahmanical traditions that modern educated Hindus claim to be proud of-- has traditionally placed on the description of the innermost core of the human being and an understanding of the ultimate reality, Hindu society places relatively little emphasis on inculcating habits of public behaviour which involve concern for the other members of society and for what might be called the the public good. The result is that in the public behaviour of even ordinary people an ingrained respect for the law or of even of more ordinary rules of conduct is conspicuously absent. Like people like rulers. But if India were to become a truly modern society, the people of India would need to greatly improve their public behaviour and if they did so, their politicians would also get better. And an improvement in the public behaviour of the citizenry can be brought about, perhaps in the course of one generation, through constant, impartial and determined enforcement of rules and laws, small and not so small and through education--in families, in schools and in public spaces. On India's television channels there appear many gurus preaching their brands of spirituality. Astrologers do not lag far behind. Those promoting the virtues of better public behaviour of the citizenry are far fewer.
At this moment when India's intelligentsia is celebrating yet again the firm establishment of democracy in the country, this discordant note also needs must be sounded.