New Internationalist

Indian elections, democracy and all that

Last Friday, state assembly election results were pouring in from different parts of India. Our state of Tamil Nadu has delivered a deathly poll verdict to the ruling party, the DMK. It has been completely routed. I am amazed at this. I would never ever have predicted such a result.

The DMK has consistently provided enormous, lavish populist presents to the people of Tamil Nadu. Rice, the basic staple, was sold to the poor through ration shops, our public food distribution system, at the ridiculously low price of Rs.2 per kilo (a British pound is worth around Rs.70 at the time of writing). And before the last election it promised and delivered a free colour TV to the poor of the state (almost everyone queued up claiming poverty and a colour TV and got one!) And yet they lost.

People say it’s the incumbency factor. There’s a voters’ swing invariably, which turfs out the party in power when the people have had enough. And key leaders from the ruling party have been embroiled in massive scams. But, I ask, ‘We live in a society where corruption is an endemic part of political life. The multi-billion rupee scams and scandals are on TV every day. And the whole population knows what’s going on. I, for one, would never have expected that factor to influence the voter. If the average citizen gets his/her freebies, isn’t that enough to make him/her happy?’

Apparently not. Our poorest people, our majority, seem to have been seriously angered by the disgraceful corruption dramas played out, irony of ironies, on those very TV screens given to them by the party. But they, the people, were not amused.

The electorate of this country are a totally unpredictable lot. Largely poor and illiterate, nonetheless, they take their elections really seriously. This election, 78.80 per cent of the Tamil Nadu population turned out to vote. Many people go to the polling booths as soon as they open, in some places as early as 6 am. Election Day is a big event. Most people are given time off to vote and most take the entire day off. It’s the educated middle class and idle rich who shirk their responsibility and refuse to vote, cynically shrugging (with a lot of truth albeit), ‘There’s not much difference between one party and the next.’

In West Bengal, the world’s longest democratically elected Communist government got voted out for the first time in 34 years. They started well, bringing hope to the people of the state. They were meant to be a People’s Party. But apart from corruption and misrule, the Marxist cadres were a swaggering, bullying lot. Recently, they have been completely discredited after state troops fired on innocent, unarmed protestors in a place called Singur, where local farmers protested the government giving away their land to a huge industrial project.

India is the world’s largest democracy. Our one billion plus population ensures that. We tend to treat our government as a joke. Our democracy as a farce. But often, the electorate stuns the intelligentsia.

The people. Photo by Dainis Matisons under a CC licence.

Our illiterate and semi-literate masses defy all analyses. They can prove a psychologists’ nightmare because they overturn every poll prediction and just go out and do their own thing. They’ve toppled politicians whose positions were considered impregnable. Some major heart stopping elections were when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was defeated at the height of her power after the Emergency in 1977, when the entire country went through an unprecedented repressive period. And another was when the BJP government – a right-wing Hindutva regime – was defeated.

For Indians, the Bush-Al Gore defeat in Florida was a scenario that defied comprehension. For us, cynicism notwithstanding, the election juggernaut, the largest election spectacle in the world, is an exciting, larger-than-life drama that enthralls the entire nation. Almost as riveting as cricket. And for what it’s worth, for over 60 years now since Independence, Indian democracy, warts n all, has survived. And it sometimes surprises us by appearing to be alive and well!

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