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Between the line

After the elections
May 20, 2009


SIX weeks is too long a period for conducting elections. The government has been inactive since the poll notification issued nearly three months ago. Fortunately, there has been no challenge from within. But practically all neighbouring countries have been facing such situations that demanded New Delhi’s immediate attention. New parliament must attend to this problem.

Inside the country certain tendencies that have arisen cause concern over the future of democracy. Elections are not just a question of queuing up before the polling booths, but also representing something deeper and more meaningful for the people. Economic wellbeing is no doubt the main element required, but more important is the value system which the nation has lost along the way. If the country had only retained the rule of law, it would have met the minimum demand of democracy. Worse, there is no accountability in any field.

The question that now faces the nation is who will bring about the required change. Leaders of political parties are interested only in power for power’s sake. They have made their parties as their personal fiefdoms and there is no internal democracy. A party moves from one alliance to another, not on ideological or policy considerations but on the basis of gain. Criminals or moneybags, behind them doing deals, do not have any vision which should be inculcating principles and a sense of humility.

What has lately pulled down the nation is the polarisation of society. Democracy has already been diluted to that extent. India appears to be building a structure which is far from the traditional principles: by the people, of the people and for the people. The country has seen in the last few elections more appeals in the name of caste or community by Yadavs, Patels, Marathas, Rajputs and others. These powerful groups have developed into mafias.

The introduction of Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate in the midst of the elections was meant to project Hindutva and to emphasise that here was the man who could go to any length to make the society more Hindu and more parochial. It’s a tragedy that the BJP, which once led the country, fails to appreciate the temperament of an India where both Hindus and Muslims have lived together for centuries in a spirit of accommodation.

I recall when I was India’s High Commissioner at London Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited the Soviet Union when it was tottering. Concerned over its future, she told me at a party how Soviet President Gorbachev was helplessly looking for a way to keep his nation together. She said that her advice to him was to send a team to India to see how the society divided by caste, communities and languages had managed for hundreds of years to survive as one country.
She asked me how I would explain this phenomenon. I told her that we in India did not think that things were either black or white, but believed in a grey area. We went on expanding the grey area, another way of describing the pluralism which had kept our society together. The glue is the sense of tolerance. This glue I find is drying up year after year.

The recent Lok Sabha election has shown increasing intolerance and speeches of hate, including personal attacks, which do not in any way contribute to the democratic spirit. It’s time that we have some legislation that blocks communal and caste-based parties from contesting elections. The name of parties should not delude us because under an innocuous banner a party can spill venom. Equally important is how to bring about a change in the society where disparities are increasing between individuals and regions. Since consumerism has become an integral part of our life, it does not occur to us that two-thirds of India’s population continues to live in an income around Rs 1,000 a month even after 62 years of independence.

The International Food Policy Research Institute ranks India 66th out of 88 countries in its 2008 Global Hunger Index: hunger is at a “serious” level in four of its 17 biggest states, “alarming” in 12 and “extremely alarming” in 1. This poor performance is unrelated to state-level economic growth or who holds power; this is a systemic failure.

Political leaders are comfortable because they are thick with industrialists and businessmen who provide them the funds they require. In the absence of electoral reforms it is not possible to stop the role that money plays, but then the question is will the political parties agree to a law which makes elections possible within an affordable limit?

The role of media, particularly the electronic one, has been deplorable. The bias was obvious and there are reports of corrupt practices. An inquiry committee should be appointed to look into the charges which some political leaders are willing to substantiate.

Corruption has saturated both the bureaucratic and political machinery to such an extent that the rule of one party or the cabal means benefits for all those who constitute or support it. Sometimes people have argued that it is better to allow a party in power to continue than to elect a new one because the one in power has filled its coffers and would need less.

I think there is a point in the comment of The Times, London: “Just as India has taken cricket and changed it forever it has adopted democracy and transformed it into its own unique political game.” Yet this is democracy of a different kind. It does not ensure people to elect the candidate they want, nor does it get away from dynastic, caste and communal politics. In such a system the youth suffers the most, the new entrants are said to be 23 million.

At some stage the people will become desperate because they have been led down a wrong path. Some straws are already in the wind and they are in the shape of the gun-backed agenda of the Naxalites, or those in the northeast. The government has been raising battalions of police and legislating more and more oppressive laws. But even top security men who use them have said publicly that the situations require a political approach rather than suppression.

Perhaps all ‘isms’ have no answer to India’s ills. It has mixed them to try to solve the economic problems. One, I am not sure how far the rulers have been sincere in using them to oust poverty, and two, whether the methods employed were relevant. However, we have wasted too much time and too many resources in attaining too little. Let us discuss all these things openly and without fear now that the elections are over.

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