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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  1. #1 Prathap 16 May 11

    2G scam had no or little impact to the voter. The main reason would be.
    1. Shortage of Electricity
    2. Steep commodity price
    3. Administration
    4. Family ruling
    5. Congress and Sri Lanka Massacre
    and
    6. 2G Scam

  2. #2 Anita Christy 16 May 11

    Good article Mari...as always well written and very informational. Love the pictures of the girls - they look so full of life and happy!!!

  3. #3 Nirupama 19 May 11

    Elections are a full time job for a large population in India. I was surprised to hear Jayalalitha say that she has 1.5 crore party workers and the amount of black money to mainatin a system of this size must be mind boggling. Emotions, Freebies, Caste etc rule elections and it is difficult to say what will succeed. The large interlligent population are ’not bothered’ or ’mere spectators’ to the drama.

    However, given our diversity and size we ’somehow’ survive and will survive as long as the black money will keep circulating within the country since the media and entertainement firms, mobile firms, computer firms et all, will keep receiveing this black money and the common man will have no option but to pay tax. Unless, each state and centre works with a profit and loss account and be accountable for inflow and outflow this will continue. Sometime, i feel it is very magical how we still have 8-9% growth rates in GDP only and if black money included our GDP would be 3 trillion.........(I suppose).

  4. #4 Beulah Kaushik 22 May 11

    Nice article and a great insight.... every time a party is voted outand specially by the masses, it amazes everyone.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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