First-time Indian voters like me, along with other eligible ones, are keenly looking forward to flaunting the blue mark on their index finger. Seven-phased, four weeks long, this is the ‘Festival of the country’ (Desh ka tyohaar, in Hindi) to choose the seventeenth Indian Lok Sabha. It is aptly called so because it witnesses unparalleled participation and everything in relation to it. About 900 million eligible voters will vote at a million polling stations in 543 constituencies across India. There are likely to be fifteen candidates, on an average, in each constituency. About 450 political parties are in the fray. This event has more people participating in it as compared to the combined population of Europe and Australia. Almost 3.96 million robust and tamper-proof Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) accompanied by VVPAT (voter-verified paper audit trail) have been deployed. Estimated expenditure on these elections stands at $7 billion, which is 3.2 times the cost involved in conducting the US Presidential elections of 2016.
Elections 2019 is likely to be a close one and is a keen contest between two alliances - the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the present opposition, United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The respective important constituents of these alliances are - the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC). This election reminds me of the famous Abba song – Take a chance on me. Narendra Modi, the incumbent Prime Minister, and Rahul Gandhi, the most important leader of the Congress, have widely travelled across the length and breadth of the country in the past two months to woo voters. Both have liberally referred to armed forces in their speeches to derive some kind of political advantage. The five-year vision document of both the parties – the election manifesto - talks about the pro-farmer approach. While the Congress has promised to approach the issue of rural distress through a separate budget for farmers, the BJP has vowed to provide pensions for small and marginal farmers after the age of 60 and to double the income of farmers by 2022. Both parties have announced their cash transfer and income support schemes for people living in extreme poverty. Employment, security, and infrastructure feature prominently in the manifestos of both parties.
Many contentious issues have no reference in Congress’ vision document while BJP is emphatic about these. Firstly, it has promised to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya (an important Hindu God believed to have been born there), whose construction Muslims have been opposing because of the existence of the Babri mosque at the same location. Its hardline approach on the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution is also evident in the document. These two articles give special status and privileges to the state and to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The proposal to have a National Registry of Citizens (NRC) to check foreign nationals or illegal immigrants in India’s North-East, particularly in the State of Assam is also included.
Is closure possible?
Elections to the Indian legislature highlights some important electoral policy issues that require, if not closure, then a serious attempt to address them. The first being the issue of simultaneous election to the Indian Parliament and the State Legislatures, second, the funding of elections, and third, the role of the media, including social media.
The first four elections in India from 1952 through 1967 were conducted simultaneously. This concept ended when the fourth Lok Sabha was dissolved before the end of its term. The Law Commission wanted to reinstate this system as they felt that there is no proper governance across the country and the nation is continuously in the election mode, which leads to ministerial work suffering. Simultaneous elections will ensure that the ruling parties at the State and the Centre level will get sufficient time to execute the policies that they had talked about in their respective manifestos. This also will help in reducing the cost of elections. Though BJP has proposed it again, it seems to be too difficult a plan to be implemented, especially in light of the severe resistance it faces from the opposition parties. The stiff resistance is because it will involve cutting down or increasing the tenure of some present State Legislatures and a Constitutional Amendment as well.
In India, despite the Election Commission’s commitment to the idea of State funding of elections and recommendations for the same by various committees, not much progress has been made in this direction. In 2017, probably one of its kind in the world, Electoral Bonds were envisaged as an interest-free instrument to raise funding in a transparent manner. A corporate or an individual can purchase these promissory notes from an authorised bank and the identity of the donor will be known only to the bank. The anonymity clause attracted criticism and it was contended that it would lead to shell companies making donations. The very purpose of transparent funding would be defeated. Taking cognisance of this, on a petition, the Indian Supreme Court has asked all political parties to furnish receipts of electoral bonds along with the identity and bank account details of the donors and the amounts received to the Election Commission by May 30. The Electoral Bonds, in their present form, are otherwise playing a limited role. Experts estimate that all the political parties put together have raised only around $300 million through these bonds, which, is of course, far less than what they seem to be spending.
In the electoral history of India, the media, especially electronic, has never spelled out its political affiliation as clearly as in this election. Instead of taking an independent stand, the views expressed by television channels are a reflection of their owner’s political ideology. Social media is being used by different parties for propaganda as well as to spread misinformation. Prominent social media companies, including Facebook along with its app services - Instagram and WhatsApp, have adopted a voluntary code of ethics for the general elections with the Election Commission of India (ECI). According to Facebook sources, it is removing around one million abusive accounts every day using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML).
Voting the Indian way
Despite the syncretic nature of Indian society, the massive scale of elections and many related issues remaining unresolved, the process and its resilience is quite impressive. It is quite interesting to note that a Pew Research poll on democracy, conducted last year, showed that 79% of the Indians are satisfied with democracy as a whole. Americans, whose country takes pride in being the cradle of democracy, have a satisfaction rate of only 46%. India’s free and fair elections for the last seventy years or so is no mean achievement for a country whose democratic institutions were far from being developed at the time of its independence. And, of course, there is no doubt in the matter that every Indian regards his/her freedom dearly. Probably, two hundred years of oppression have been proof enough that the freedom and democratic institution is of utmost importance. A nation, with vast diversity and chronic inequality, this is the time of the year when rich and poor come together to make a choice for their collective future. This is the time to voice out their desires and problems. Every Indian certainly takes pride in it. It is for young Indians to ensure that politicians do not disturb the democratic fibre of the country. It is for them to carry forward the greatness behind the legacy that was slowly built over the years, and that they too take pride in flaunting the blue mark on their finger. The blue mark is more than just a sign of vote, it is a symbol of the reminder that now they are free to choose their leader, and that the people run the country and elect the government. Their dissent towards the leaders comes as a vote against their party. So, they better serve in people’s favour.
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