By Raghunath Nageswaran

The electoral battlefield is ultra-charged; hosting what is being touted as the “most important event” of the decade for India. The scale and magnitude of Indian general elections 2014 is overwhelming and has no precedent to it in history. The renowned historian Ramachandra Guha calls India “the most reckless political experiment” and it is remarkable that despite diversities and (worrisome) fissiparous tendencies, we have been able to hold on together as a country for a fairly longer period, debunking predictions of some of the well-meaning political scientists about India’s balkanisation prospects immediately after the Independence. Universal adult franchise, voting rights for women, largely poor and illiterate electorate were the defining elements of the first election in India’s post-independence history. The first two elements have gone from strength to strength (in some respects) and the last character has been undergoing change at a glacial pace.

Since then we have navigated periods of instability, uncertainty and inefficiency in our polity, demonstrating our conviction to stand by democracy through tumultuous situations. This 16th Lok Sabha election is an interesting spectacle in great many ways. In living memory, no individual leader has garnered the kind of attention, publicity and promotion of the kind the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate is enjoying and many consider him to be the “saviour” of the “collapsing economy”. I personally feel it is unfair and absurd to expect one man to fix every problem and get the house in order. In the present climate of fractious and pressure-group politics, one simply cannot short-circuit regional forces to get a legislation passed or a policy approved. The growth of the regional parties in irreversible; so given the fait accompli, it would be sensible to anticipate a “coalition of extremes” to come on board to devise region-specific solutions.

Social media seem to have gained enormous significance in the light of elections. There is a figment of imagination about increased levels of voter awareness promoted by the social media. I’m quite sceptical of this improvement and I simply don’t buy this argument because the political knowledge of voters (with special reference to first-time voters) is skin-deep. Not many know the names of the candidates contesting election in their constituency. This doesn’t testify to the fact that voter awareness has improved. Growth, development, jobs, governance and corruption seem to be the major poll issues. These are broad issues but the specific ones are being ignored because not many are informed or game enough to interrogate the politicians on matters of this nature. The BJP in its manifesto has promised to generate 25 crore jobs. Sounds amazing and bullish, right? But we haven’t been recipients of convincing answers for the tough questions thrown at the peddlers of the manifesto. The case is the same with the promises of uninterrupted power supply, inflation control and rejuvenation of manufacturing.

Are we even worried about the scourge of manual scavenging, relentless wave of farmer suicides, forest rights, tribal rights, maintenance of ecological balance, improving pedagogic standards in government schools, social security of the foot-loose migrants, rights of the disabled, law and order problems and many such issues that beg attention? These problems are conveniently ignored because the ones who are supposed to raise these issues are less empowered and hence less vocal. But they will deliver their decisive verdict through the ballot.

We must not fall prey to make-believe promises. Voting is an exercise that must be done with diligence. In the deluge of party-related choices, we have failed to take stock of the structural issues pertaining to electoral/parliamentary/representative democracy. Since 1989, very few candidates have won the elections with a “mandate”, in the truest sense of the word. The one who wins just 25-30 percent of the votes represents the electorate in the Lok Sabha.

Are they truly representative of their electorate? This vitiates the sanctity of representative democracy. Such practices can be made less-distortionary by bringing in the idea of “single-transferable vote” and by conducting “run-off” elections for the two candidates who top the chart. Will a Proportional Representation (PR) system correct the inadequacies of the First Past the Post System in India? I have no concrete answers in this regard, but many well-meaning political scientists, politicians and policy-makers believe it would. This might be an ambitious experiment and it can be engineered only in a phased manner.

This is why public debates should play a critical role in shaping the policy directions. But unfortunately the tradition of discussion, debate and deliberation in the Parliament has seen a decline with furore and pandemonium overwhelming that progressive tradition. The political discourse in the news media occasionally includes matters of great importance and in social media there is no dearth of ranting. They simply raise the decibel levels. This rarefied virtual bubble takes the attention away from serious issues.

Celebrities, technocrats, social activists and retired bureaucrats have jumped on to the bandwagon, so we can say there is “inclusiveness”. Their grasp of ground realities and realpolitik will be tested body and soul. It is important that we make the system conducive for the cleanest, best and the brightest to enter, to be electable and to work towards transformative ends.

So how should we vote? A thorough perusal of the candidates’ political, financial and criminal background is imperative to vote rationally. In the case of incumbents, their track-record must be the touchstone. I strongly believe that opportunistic alliances looking to cash in on the societal divides will be disowned by the voters this time since local issues have been dominating the voter moods.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind