The General Election of the world’s largest functioning democracy is around the corner. The Election Commission is gearing up to organize an exercise of stupendous, gargantuan proportion, involving men and machines of diverse kinds, electoral personnel, security forces, EVMs, even airborne vehicles in its colossal attempt to reach out to voters across the country. The voter is all set to exercise his or her voting right and thus justify the fact that he is a proud citizen of a republic. Its founders had granted universal adult suffrage to the teeming millions, largely steeped in poverty, hunger and illiteracy at a time when many advanced democratic countries like the USA, Canada and Switzerland did not give its citizens such extensive voting rights. Indian democracy, despite many aberrations, has withstood the vicissitudes of a turbulent polity, a society caught in the cauldron of casteist, communal and sectarian tensions, and an economy floundering for many decades with single-digit growth. Much of the credit goes to the citizens who have inculcated the spirit of democracy.
On the eve of the 17th general election, the average Indian voter faces the uphill task of doing a mental check on the issues and concerns of uppermost importance. The million dollar question is: What does the voter want, how does he or she perceive the present and upcoming scenario? Are grand issues like India’s place in the comity of nations, the criticality of the battle against cross-border terrorism, brought into focus by the Pulwama terror attack. It has triggered a wave of patriotic fervour which in recent times has often degenerated into jingoism and mindless violence unleashed on the hapless people caught in the crossfire. Will this be a decisive issue? Or, perhaps, frayed nerves will soothe and the voter will take a rational decision while pressing the EVM button.
Many right-thinking citizens, as well as international observers, are distressed by the surge of ultra-nationalist posturing which has restricted the space of alternative discourses in a country whose Constitution upholds the lofty principles of liberty, equality, fraternity, freedom of expression and other certitudes of liberal democracy. Slapping of anachronistic sedition charges on students, writers, civil rights activists who have in any way or other questioned the excess of right-wing politics like those committed by cow vigilante groups or crusaders against the so-called ‘love jehad’, restriction of women’s right to be out in the public domain and make informed choices while selecting a partner, branding dissenting voices as ‘anti-national’ are worrisome developments. The trend has been worsened by the politics of hatred. On occasion, the voice of sanity gets throttled. Recently, a group of eminent citizens have listed certain important issues which are to be presented to all political parties for serious discussion before the election. These include the severe threat to fundamental rights, notably the right to life and right to freedom of thought and expression. However, citizens are aware of the fact that political leaders across the divides have displayed a cynical disregard for freedom of expression while in power. Cartoonists, blog writers and filmmakers have often incurred the wrath of the powers that be for daring to lampoon their misdeeds and consequently, no one can take a holier than though stand when the issue of ‘freedom after expression’(pun intended) comes under the scanner.
No political leader or a common voter will deny that ultimately, it is the economy that matters, to paraphrase the words of Bill Clinton’s campaign manager. The economy seems to have performed impressively in the early years of the present dispensation, with an average growth rate of 7.3 per cent. Though demonetisation had slowed down the economy, various sources indicate that things are back on the rails. With India earning the distinction of being the fastest growing economy of the world, even ahead of China, the country is poised to become a $ 5 trillion economy within the next few years. The Ease of Business index indicates that from the rank of 134 in 2014, India’s position improved to 77 in 2018, an improvement not very spectacular, but quite noteworthy. However, things are very different on the ground. Various surveys indicate that because of demonetization, the unorganized sector has suffered heavy losses, causing unemployment to soar. There are indications that black economy is back in circulation. High profile economic offenders are absconding. Though the government has brushed aside newspaper reports about NSSO data indicating that unemployment in India is at a 45-year high of 6.1 per cent, other reports point to a grim scenario, so far as joblessness is concerned. The grandiose self-employment schemes like Start Up India, Stand Up India and the like have not made much progress.
The participation of women in the workforce is actually declining, and as per World Bank data, it presently stands at 27 per cent, which in fact is lower than that of Bangladesh. This is happening despite the fact that more women are receiving education, a tell-tale sign of an increasingly patriarchal, misogynist society which denies life-choices to women, as argued by liberal thinkers.
The country’s Human Development Index has not changed since 2014, thus lending credence to the perception of many analysts that the beneficial effects of economic growth have not trickled down, that income disparity is becoming steeper and that an average Indian is actually worse off. Even without getting lost in the labyrinths of statistical analysis, the visible distress of farmers points to the malaise, inflicting rural India.
Alleged tinkering with the functioning of the Supreme Court, RBI, CBI has caused anxiety about the sanctity of our constitutional edifice. An unprecedented press conference, held by four senior judges of the Supreme Court, who expressed concern over the system of allocation of cases to various benches by the Chief Justice, has affected the hitherto impeccable credibility of an institution considered to be the last resort by millions in this country.
Though the Modi government has paid attention to the grave threat of climate change by being a party to the Paris climate deal, much remains to be done as India continues to be one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and a neoliberal state with low priority to longterm social welfare may not be the best party to achieve that.
Instead of a Messianic superhero as a leader, a team of regional leaders, working on a common minimum agenda of inclusive development and sensitive to the need of making constant adjustments in the interests of diverse groups, may be the best hope for a diverse, plural, heterogeneous country like India. Even the ruling party is moving towards coalitions, and instead of a clash of personalities, a battle of opposing coalitions may be conducive for the health of India’s multicultural, pluralist democracy.
To survive and prosper, democracy in India hinges, not on majoritarianism but on constant recalibration and readjustment of the interests and aspirations of different castes, ethnic and regional groups. It needs to open up space for creation of new identity, acquired not through birth but through work, it needs to give citizens access to health, education, sources of livelihood and a life of dignity, it needs less rhetoric, less spending on propaganda and sharper focus on actual action. It is a moment of reckoning for all citizens.
(The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Women‘s Christian College, Kolkata)