The electoral battle for India’s 17th Lok Sabha had been in progress across the country in seven phases from April to May. The biggest circus of democracy on Planet Earth has many unique features. More than 50 parties, including the regional entities, had contested the 2019 general elections. There are 900 million eligible voters, representing an increase of 84.3 million since the 2014 general election. It was the largest-ever election anywhere in the world, with 15 million voters in the age group of 18-19 years eligible to vote for the first time. Interestingly 38,325 transgenders voted for the first time as members of the third-sex and 71,735 overseas voters were enrolled for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Electronic Voting Machines were used in all booths with a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) system in all the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies. Further, ECI banned results of exit polls from 11 April to 19 May, till the last phase of the elections and predictions by astrologers and tarot card readers were stopped. Except 2014, no single party won the majority of seats in the Lok Sabha since 1984. In the 2019 general election, there were four major prepoll alliances, formed on a national scale.

The electoral battles were fiercely fought with reports of mob violence, booth capturing, political vendetta involving killings, intimidation, bribery, violation of the model code, and below the belt unparliamentary expletives. Instead of development issues, the campaigns were driven by mudslinging, defamatory political speeches, and the spewing of venom. It is almost a competitive exercise in raising filthy slogans.

Hilarious and loathsome slogans are raised to woo voters. Such inspiring slogans like Jai Jawan Jai Kisan (Salute the soldier, Salute the farmer) are no longer heard. Rabble-rousing slogans are raised to stoke hatred, such as Tilak, taraju aur talwar, inko maaro jutey char (‘hit the upper castes with shoes, referring to Brahmins as tilak, or a bindi on the forehead, the trader class symbolised by taraju or weighing scales, and the Rajputs who wield the sword). Achhe din er dhop er chop; notebandi super flop; ei BJP ar na, ar na, ar na (Achhe din was a hoax; demonetisation was a flop show; no more of this BJP, no more, no more) ; the mother of all defamatory remarks against the nation’s present Prime Minister was chowkidar chor hai raised by the then Congress president, against which the Supreme Court had to issue a formal contempt notice.

Indian democracy is rated as ‘a flawed democracy’ and this objective assessment is based on the Democracy Index that measures the quality of democracy. It is compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a UKbased company to compare different government systems. Index gives scores to 167 countries, based on 60 indicators, organised in five broad groups ~ electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functioning of government, political participation, and political culture. EIU divides the nations into four regimes ~ first, full democracies; second, flawed democracies; third, hybrid regimes; and fourth, authoritarian regimes. India falls in the second group.

Why was Indian democracy ranked at 41 despite its unique features? The reason could be the credibility and reliability of conducting free and fair national elections, the lack of the right option for voters to choose the right candidate who shares their concerns and strives hard to resolve chronic development issues. Intimidating hooligans ignite sectarian sentiments. The level of security is as good as no security in reality for voters to exercise their franchise in many booths. External influence may not be ruled out. The level of bureaucratic competence to execute the policies and issues of corruption, political violence, booth capturing, disputes, killings are factored. There are 20 countries with full-fledged and flourishing democracies. They score more than 8 out of 10 points. Norway, Iceland and Sweden top the list. In these countries, civil and political liberties, security, choice of the right representatives, respect for human values and basic human rights don’t just exist on paper. These are respected and reinforced by a conducive political culture and democratic principles. Full democracies have a system of checks and balances, supported by an independent judiciary and fully functional governments. The representatives of the people truthfully reflect the aspirations of the people. There is a diverse, independent, objective print, and internet-based social media.

India has been grouped under ‘flawed democracies’. This is not too distressing considering the gargantuan scale of the electoral exercise. The free and fair elections honouring basic civil liberties in India face certain inherent challenges, risks and systemic and procedural constraints. There is much that is wanting in the critical domains of freedom of media, political culture, and citizens’ participation in politics and quality of governance. The violence and rancour point to systemic flaws in the democratic process and the crying need for electoral reforms. The influence of 3Ms ~ money, muscle/mafia and media ~ is endemic and perilous, threatening the security and freedom for voters to exercise their franchise. In a multi-cornered contest, a candidate with a low vote percentage can win. The credibility and reliability of conducting free and fair national elections, lack of option for the voters to choose a right candidate who might share their concerns and try to resolve them are the major impediments.

In a multi-cornered contest, a candidate with a low vote percentage can win. The social media goes viral and jittery with fake and real stories micro targeting the majority of illiterate poor voters divided on caste, religion, community, religious practices as well as the economic divide. Elections demonstrate that the vote-share may have no co-relation with winning seats because of cross-voting in multicornered contests. Many educated voters stay away from voting or choose NOTA or the option of “ none of the above” expressing distress and distrust in finding the right candidate who shares their concerns and can expect to do something to resolve them. Even a one per cent swing in either direction can have a significant impact in winning or losing

Dynasty politics has been institutionalised as a legitimate right to lead. Leadership is thrust by birth in a particular family of politicians across the country as a norm. Competent leaders are afraid to speak their real mind because of the inherent risks in a precarious, unpredictable political process. No tolerance other than dynastic leadership is enforced where elimination is the rule. Merit may occupy a poor secondary position. Where dynastic political families rule the roost, there is no room for encouraging capable leadership extraneous to the political family. The competent tend to become followers, afraid to lead, thrive in the business of politics by innovating convincing, though apparently spineless arguments to legitimise the birth-thrust in national and regional parties in every part of India Evidently, these are some apparent systemic flaws in Indian democracy. All these factors and have rendered Indian democracy a flawed concept.

Parliament has never discussed the need for electoral reforms despite the Election Commission’s letters to the government. EC has inherent limitations to make the electoral process fully transparent by controlling the overwhelming influence of 3Ms, disqualifying the criminals from contesting, controlling the vitiated campaigns, forging inner-party democracy or improving voter participation. Consequently, we, the people of India end up electing representatives who do not share the concerns of the majority of the poor, who are the least represented. The developmental agenda is seldom featured in the campaigns. Political polarisation is based on divisive vested interests, caste, community and religion.

(To be continued)