Hope and Change: Indian Elections 2014
By Dan Mayur
Amidst the earsplitting cacophony of the Indian urban sprawl in megacities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata, gigantic open-air political rallies have started in the local Ram Leela Grounds, Azad Maidans, and Shivaji Parks with the trade-mark blaring of archaic loudspeakers. It is election time in India!
Over the last two decades, a lot has changed. But the more things change, the more they remain the same. Among the things that have not changed are the politics and these political rallies. Everywhere you see colorful banners, flags, and huge posters of smiling politicians with their VVIP progeny who are destined for similar political careers. And then there are the large placards with inspiring slogans, the decorated pandals, the armies of lathi-wielding policemen unsuccessfully trying to control the crowds and the impossible traffic. The endless speeches of inarticulate politicians, often garbed in clownish headgear, are full of promises and eulogies to the great history of this great land that is ready to become a superpower – if only, our beloved Netaji (leader) and his party are voted to power.
The TV Channels are abuzz with political punditry, analyses, commentaries, predictions, intractable “what if” coalition scenarios of the hundred plus parties contesting elections and resultant number-crunching. It is an ultra-high decibel affair where you have to push your way through, interrupting, ignoring, and screaming over each other. What you hear over and over again are words like communalism, regionalism, secularism, nepotism, inclusive progress, and vote banks of various colors, creeds and religions – Muslims, Dalits, Jats, Marathas, Lingayats, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and OBCs. Interestingly, some modern management jargon has started creeping into the dialogue. In his much anticipated first ever interview on TV, the Congress Party heir-apparent, Rahul Gandhi, reportedly used the word ‘empowerment’ 74 times, ‘process improvement’ 56 times, and ‘reforms’ 48 times without actually defining the whats and hows of any. Talk-show moderators are hardly moderate; they seem to love the sound of their own voices and, almost always, their questions are longer and louder than the answers. There are no Walter Cronkites or Diane Sawyers here. It is a true Tower of Babel.
In comparison to TV talk-shows, the print media are quite different with a broad coverage and well-written articles that are often sober, thoughtful, and balanced. And highlighting the election season, you see a lot of full-page ads sporting the pictures of the Congress President, Sonia Madamji and her speechless PM, Dr. Manmohan Singh Sirji, with a whole group of assorted honorable deputies inaugurating one Rajeev Gandhi Building or another or launching some Indira Gandhi National Scheme for the “weaker sections” of the society. An unwritten rule here is that just about every central government project must bear the name of a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family. In Maharashtra, that honor goes to Shri Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
Knowledge of three subjects is essential to comprehend the media jargon.
First, Indians have a penchant for the use of acronyms many of which are created on the fly. News items cannot be read without a special dictionary that tells the reader what abbreviations from AAP to ZNP mean and include familiars like INCP (Indian National Congress President), PM (Prime Minister), SRK, BJP, AIDMK, RBI, SC, CJ, VHP, MP, UP, BCCI, DA, NRI, OBC, MG…on and on…. Typical headlines read something like: “TDP moves SC with MDMK help over BCCI shenanigans”. Shenanigans is the only word I understood in this sentence but, then, there are shenanigans galore everywhere.
The second thing one needs to know is the Indian Penal Code because so many news items talk about FIRs being brought and people being “booked” under IPC section 295A or 377 or my favorite 427, which my research indicates, is “Mischief by killing or maiming an animal of the value of 10 rupees”, thanks to the 1840 Code, inherited from the British masters.
And the third thing one must know is the Indian system of counting – lakh is five zeroes and crore is seven zeroes after a numeral. Most reported numbers of government expenditures, politician’s wealth and corruption are typically in lakhs of crores, a mind-boggling array of zeroes after a one or two digit number that ordinary mortals understand.
Finally, one should know the protocol that every female name must be followed by Madamji and every male name by Sirji.
A wise man has said that the election is a celebration of democracy. In typical Indian hyperbole, it is considered a Yagna, with all its rituals, performed to reaffirm the success of democracy. It comes to India every five years or so. The parliamentary system does not have a fixed, predefined election schedule. But, certainly, it is a great national celebration, a party, a time for soul-searching, maybe some catharsis and renewal. For politicians and the wealthy, it is a time to demonstrate and exercise their power. For the opportunists it is time for satisfying personal greed, for making deals, for switching parties, for horse-trading, jockeying for and acquiring positions. A Mahabharat-style kaleidoscope of humanity with all its strengths and frailty unravels before election time in India. Maneuvering for a favor to get a Ticket, a Party’s nomination to contest the election, is the biggest task and challenge for an aspiring politician. This is also a major cause of favoritism and corruption in Indian politics. An American-style primary system followed by issues-oriented campaigns, discussions, and debates as opposed to pandering to minority vote banks is what India badly needs.
In the upcoming 16th Indian General Elections, India will elect 543 members of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the national parliament. It elects the prime minister, who then names his cabinet. Unlike for the US president, Indians do not vote directly for a prime minister. There will be about 788 million eligible voters for the election, including nearly 150 million youngsters who will have become eligible to vote for the first time. Typical voter turnout is around 60%. No single party has won a parliamentary majority since 1989. So the recent governments have involved coalitions of smaller regional parties led by either the BJP or the Congress.
It is customary among political pundits to praise the virtues of Indian democracy. However, one does get the feeling that Indian democracy is based on ignorance and blind faith of the masses and their exploitation by the ruling class. Almost two thirds of Indians seem to believe that Sonia Gandhi is related to Mahatma Gandhi! The income disparity here is reminiscent of feudalism of a bygone era. One often wonders if this is not really the land of the, by the, and for the privileged. But one thing is for sure, elections do take place here successfully without significant violence, the results are respected, and the government transition takes place in a systematic way. The elections are, of course, getting bigger and bigger, noisier, meaner, and exceedingly expensive. By some accounts it takes upwards of 50 crore rupees (8 million dollars) to run for office. Corruption is a way of life to which most people seem to have been desensitized. Political office-holding is a sure shot to riches of awe-inspiring proportions.
In this election season, questions abound. What can be done to revitalize economic growth, to control inflation, to ensure greater accountability and effective governance, to succeed in the eternal struggle against poverty and corruption, and to safeguard national strategic interests? The GDP growth that averaged 7.9 percent for the past decade has fallen below 5 percent in the last year. In the next few years, India needs to create 50 million new jobs for its young population. The border disputes with China and Pakistan continue sporadically. In the face of these issues, what are politicians concerned about? Here is a very revealing snap-shot of current news in the media at the end of February 2014, about two months before the election.
- Disruption, disruption, disruption. No work in several sessions of the parliament. “Such disruptions hit our parliamentary system like a thunderbolt,” Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar said, when pandemonium broke out after a Telangana MP released pepper spray in the parliament seriously injuring 17 people.
- Mamata “Didi” Bannerjee, CM of WB and a PM aspirant, refused to see the US ambassador so as not to displease the Muslim lobby.
- Jayalalitha “Amma”, CM of TN and a PM aspirant, celebrated her 66th Birthday with a 66 kg cake in the shape of the parliament building. She also set free the murderers of Rajeev Gandhi for creating goodwill in her vote bank.
- The VHP urges Hindus to have 5 children per family to guard against India becoming a Muslim nation.
- The honorable Sushil Kumar Shinde, Home Minister of India, threatened to crush social media if “they” continue to write against “us”.
- “Willing to say sorry for any mistake”, BJP tells Muslims. Party president Rajnath Singh urges Muslims to give “one chance” to BJP.
- Lalu Prasad Yadav, Sonia Madam’s friend and a convicted criminal in the multi-crore fodder scam, out on bail and a PM aspirant, has been deserted by 13 of his 22 party-men.
- With the split of Andhra Pradesh into two states – Telangana and Seemandhra – there is a call for breaking other states into smaller ones like Vidarbha out of Maharashtra and up to six states out of UP, as an urgent national need.
- A politician is building a Temple for Sonia Madamji with a gigantic image of the madam in the form of and draped as a Hindu Goddess.
- Not to be outdone by the Statue of Liberty or the many statues of Mayawati “Bahenji” in UP, the government of Maharashtra has approved 100 crore rupees for a statue of Shivaji to be placed in the Arabian Sea. The Gujarat government plans to spend 2000 crores for a statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. This will be the tallest statue in the world.
Such are the leaders and their issues. The media are replete with news items like this – amusing, amazing, and distressing at the same time. Incredible India!
Influence of Regional Parties
For this national election, very little about it seems to be national since much of the attention has been focused on the rise of regional parties and their potential impact. In many ways this is inevitable. There is much that separates India and Indians – a rural/urban divide, regional divergence, a caste and community gulf, and a schism between the haves and have-nots. The support of regional parties remains the key in 2014 as before. Most regional parties are actually single-state entities. But in India’s decentralized system, holding just a few seats in parliament can make you an important player – like AIDMK’s Amma in Tamil Nadu, TNC’s Didi in West Bengal, and the Samajwadi Party’s strongman Mulayam Singh in Uttar Pradesh. Naturally, all of them covet the Prime Ministerial chair.
These parties will be crucial in government formation, since neither of the two major national parties – the Indian National Congress (INC) or Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – is likely to win the necessary 272 seats (an outright majority, 50 percent of the 543 elected Members of Parliament) on their own. Therefore, both the Congress and BJP are trying to form alliances with regional parties. At the time of government formation, allied parties will demand ministerial posts, given in “coalition politics”. A most shameful explanation for his inability to check the rampant corruption of his cabinet colleagues was given by the outgoing PM Manmohan Singh simply as the “reality of coalition politics”. Some Kruption is to be expected in Koalishun Poltiks, opined the honorable PM.
The Demise of the Present Order
The imminent demise of the current Congress-led government can be predicted with a degree of certainty for a couple of reasons. First, the general population is fed up with the widespread sycophancy and corruption under its rule and its policies of unlimited tax-payer funded entitlement programs – creating rights and guarantees for food security, healthcare, income and education. Second, while running the party and the government as a family business, the so-called high command of the Congress failed to produce and nurture leadership for the future. The anointed Congress party PM nominee, Rahul Gandhi, has repeatedly demonstrated his lack of experience, competence, and interest in taking over the complex task of governing this diverse nation. But there seems to be no plan B.
It is fashionable to characterize every election as being the most important, the definitive game-changing event in the country’s political history. The 2014 election is no different. It is clear that a fundamental transformation of Indian politics is around the corner – the end of dynastic rule. After sixty five years of ruling India with a few interruptions, the Nehru-Gandhi family has risen to its ultimate level of incompetence and fully worn out its welcome. The most unlikely rise of Sonia and her reign over one sixth of humanity that could not be more different from her is finally coming to a screeching halt. There will be no high command politics any more.
The only remaining national party, the BJP, would seem to be the natural alternative to form the central government. And, it may happen but not so fast. BJP has announced its candidate for PM, Narendra Modi. He has a stellar record as a strong administrator and has been hailed for the governance and the progress that he has brought to his state. But Modi is not universally liked. He creates strong passions of love and hate among the voters because of his past links with ultra-rightwing parties promoting Hindu nationalism. Modi’s support seems to be confined to certain areas in the West and North with much lesser enthusiasm for him in the South and the East. BJP will have to depend on forming a coalition of regional parties.
Alliances and predictions of wins and losses change daily and, two months ahead of time, it is a fool’s game to try to predict the outcome of the election. There is great uncertainty about the future leadership. But uncertainty is a great leveler that creates possibilities. With the Congress rapidly fading and the BJP giving negative vibes, eleven assorted regional parties are uniting to form a so-called Third Front. For the alphabet experts of Indian politics, these parties include the four Left parties plus SP, JDU, AIDMK, AGP, JVM, JDS, and BJD with the leader of each dreaming of being the next PM. But the most aspiring among them seems to be Nitish Kumar of Bihar, Mulayam Singh of UP, Jayalalitha of Tamil Nadu and Naveen Patnaik of Odisha. It is anybody’s guess as to what such a diverse group of argumentative Indians with king-size egos can really accomplish.
And yet, there is a ray of hope.
Hope and change
Six years ago, an obscure senator from the state of Illinois took the United States by storm, challenging conventional norms and breaking barriers of race and class. Barack Obama brought a message of hope and change to a nation sinking in economic quagmire and overcome with self-doubt. He was young, highly educated, idealistic, and a community activist. Could history repeat in another democracy, ten thousand miles away, and facing similar issues of stagnating economy, unemployment, internal discord, religious extremism, and debilitating self-doubt? Could the IIT-educated, non-politician, and an idealistic social activist Arvind Kejriwal be the answer?
The Aam Aadmi Party
Kejriwal’s newborn AAP’s victory in the December 2013 Delhi state elections was a historic event. It defeated the entrenched, powerful Sheela Dixit of Congress. What is unique about AAP are its anti-corruption focus and the aggressive use of social media for creating public awareness and fund-raising. It is a genuine grass-roots movement similar in many ways to Obama’s. The AAP government had a dramatic beginning but it abruptly ended with Kejriwal’s resignation as the CM, just a month and a half after taking office. During that brief period, it slashed energy prices by half and enacted a major new water subsidy in Delhi. Further, it took several symbolic steps to bring government closer to the people and commenced a number of anti-corruption initiatives. When opposition parties in Delhi balked at AAP’s insistence on passing a wide-ranging Jan Lokpal (anti-corruption ombudsman) Bill, Kejriwal resigned with a bigger goal of contesting national parliamentary elections. At this point, AAP’s impact seems to be mainly in and around Delhi – in UP, Haryana, and Punjab.
Kejriwal claims that the old established parties like BJP and Congress have in effect conspired with a handful of Indian billionaires to create a new oligarchy. He believes that all of India’s problems including communal violence are rooted in corruption. He says, “Indians are first class people suffering from third class governance” and he wants to shake up the system so that it can change for the better. “Our aim in entering politics is not to come to power; But to change the current corrupt and self-serving system forever”, says Kejriwal.
Whether he will succeed or simply fade away remains to be seen. He and his team are clearly motivated but inexperienced and are without any political maturity, organization or the formidable resources that BJP and Congress possess. AAP may fail at the national level. But that is immaterial.
AAP is an idea. Kejriwal is a symbol that typifies the frustrations of the thinking, proud, and hard-working people muddling through life in a nation ruled by uncaring, corrupt, and selfish politicians. Humanity moves on hope and Kejriwal represents hope. His successes to date illustrate that change is possible. That you can win an election without a lot of money. That it is possible to take on and defeat established political dinosaurs. That people will listen to and be motivated by good ideas that promote fairness and equality of opportunity. This awareness, this change of thinking is the biggest contribution of Kejriwal and the AAP.
In summary, here are the players. Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party, 43, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty, a reluctant neophyte being thrust onto center stage; Narendra Modi of BJP, 64, a self-made politician with an American-style success story, business-friendly but tainted by accusations of rightwing extremism; Arwind Kejriwal of AAP, 45, a harbinger of hope and change but inexperienced and unproven; and then there is a host of regional leaders and wannabe PMs that really need to be relegated as decaying dead-wood – the Mayawatis, Mamatas, and Mulayams.
Whether Indian voters think alike when it comes to the next election or they will march to different political drummers remains to be seen. India is not a monolith. It is many countries in one. But one hopes that Indian voters will objectively study the issues, analyze the options, evaluate the contestants, and make a wise choice. It is high time that Indian denizens took their citizenship seriously and did their duty to democracy as enunciated by former Justice of the US Supreme Court, Felix Frankfurter:
“Democracy involves hardship – the hardship of the unceasing responsibility of every citizen. Where the entire people do not take a continuous and considered part in public life, there can be no democracy in any meaningful sense of the term. Democracy is always a beckoning goal, not a safe harbor. For freedom is an unremitting endeavor, never a final achievement. That is why no office in the land is more important than that of being a citizen.”
Dr. Dan Mayur is a world traveler and freelance writer. He is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and has a PhD in chemical engineering from Rice University in Houston. He is active on the speaker circuit and has presented numerous papers in international meetings and conferences. He has written two books, Mumbai to Stockholm via New York – Reflections of a Globetrotter, and SamajRang (co-authored with Anita Wakankar Kulkarni). His interests include writing on people, places, and politics with emphasis on socioeconomic issues. He resides in Sugar Land, Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com.