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India’s election discourse: reflections of a disappointed voter

What should Indian voters learn from the spirit of India's election discourse in April? With each passing day, a new allegation, a new set of outlandish statements and a new controversy emerged, just enough to deflect attention from the grave issues facing the country.

Nidhi Shendurnikar
20 June 2014

As I got my finger inked on April 30, as part of what is coined 'the greatest celebration of democracy', I reflected upon the nature of the political discourse amidst the mind-boggling election campaigns that had been going on for months.

Young female voter showing her voter identity card in a queue in Sikkim, India

As a voter, can one be left as anything other than completely disillusioned with the kind of discourse that dominates India’s general elections? Two defining characteristics are the overdose of a ‘secular vs. communal’ framework, and the highly irresponsible and outrageous statements dished out by political contenders across party lines. Is this what people of the world’s largest democracy should expect from their political class? And where, If this continues--more than likely--are we headed? A young voter in a queue during India's general election. Wikimedia/Press Bureau of India. Some rights reserved.Surprising enough, after six decades of independence, our election discourse turned out to be more regressive than ever before. Unfortunately, aside from all the big expectations of “acche din aane wale hain” (BJP campaign slogan and song, 'good days are ahead'); our political class has actually managed to reduce the elections to a verbal duel where all you do is to outwit the other until the next sound byte or TV appearance.

With each passing day of the unfolding election, a new allegation, a new set of outlandish statements and a new controversy emerged, just enough to deflect attention from the grave issues facing the country. Certainly no election seems adequate if the basic issues of ‘bijli’ (electricity), ‘sadak’ (roads), and ‘paani’ (water) are not addressed. And promises on these did continue to hang around, albeit with no conviction, so that in fact the impact remained insipid and utterly lacking in fresh ideas.

Then there was the secular vs. communal debate which became the pulsebeat of this election. Surely democracy can offer more than a bout of mudslinging politics? The election discourse this time around had nothing to do with the people’s expectations, it was instead steered solely by the political class. Although allegations, character assassination and slander are routinely a part of election debates, the denigration of debate in this election left me amazed.

If democracy is about freedom and rights, then it equally embodies ‘tolerance’ and ‘responsiveness’. By these yardsticks, let us take a small sample of the statements made by prominent leaders/candidates: 

“Critics of BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi should be sent to Pakistan”

– Giriraj Singh, Bhartiya Janta Party.

"Vote for the clock (NCP symbol) there (in Satara) and come back to vote for the clock here as well."

– NCP Chief Sharad Pawar asking his party workers to take advantage of the multi-phase polling in the state by voting twice.

“Muslims, not Hindus, won Kargil for India”

– Azam Khan of the Samajwadi party.

“BJP engages in zeher ki kheti” (sowing seeds of poison)

– Congress President Sonia Gandhi.

Such was the hyperbole that Indian politicians indulged in this time around. Here too, a new vocabulary for Indian politics; ‘jijaji [brother-in-law] model’ (referring to Robert Vadra), ‘chai wala’ and ‘butcher’ (referring to Narendra Modi), and ‘helicopter democracy’ (as coined by Arvind Kejriwal) to name a few (India’s Politicians Trash-Talk Their Rivals, The Wall Street Journal – April 29). While terms such as ‘khooni panja’ (bloody hand) and ‘maut ka saudagar’ (merchant of death) were to be heard in earlier elections, the ‘tamasha’ is much more evident now that elections are so preoccupied with the latest campaigning trends and “who said what to whom?”. Far from encouraging voters to be calm and reflective about the choices on offer, there is every encouragement to get carried away by the hype and hoopla generated by political gimmickry and the PR machinery at full spate.

While there are positives about voter awareness campaigns, the surge in voter percentages and increased political participation, the articulation on policy matters is conspicuous by its absence. Surely a vast country like India is bothered about issues beyond corruption and communalism. It is worried about employment, poverty, education, energy, health, technology, the economy. While every political party claims to talk of development, their policy visions are confined to their manifestos, and all we see in the public domain are personalised attacks nothing to do with being people centric. All this election offered us was the binary:  “I do not care whether I am good, but the ‘other’ is bad”. This is not a healthy trend for a democracy.

I do not see anything wrong in debating “who will win” and “how”, but is it not more important to deliberate what a win might mean for the future course of the country? To my total amazement the Election Commission (the body responsible for conducting and monitoring India’s elections) stood mute throughout this fiasco with power only to reprimand, ban and then revoke the same ban on candidates who flout every model code of conduct laid down by the EC. This does not send a serious message to candidates offending the sensibilities of voters through their irresponsible conduct.

I was under the illusion that the recent democratic elections were meant to be more about people than power. But the election discourse has proved me wrong. When candidates reek of brazen non-accountability, the post-election scenario does not look too hopeful. It seems that we have missed the bus again.

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