Rediff Logo News Banner Ads Find/Feedback/Site Index
January 20, 1998


Shalabh Kumar

The Indian voter on test

We have heard for years that the strength of the Indian democracy lies in the ability of its electorate to make intelligent judgement on ballot day. It is this ability of the electorate which has enabled the country to retain a modicum of answerability in its political system. It is also the only control that we have over a political class which has shown no signs of responsibility towards the general well-being of the people.

If elections remain the only effective mechanism in the democratic system that we have adopted, then every time that we have elections, the voters are on test. Participation in the elections tests our acceptance of the democratic process. Our vote signals, firstly, our evaluation of the performance of the political contestants in the period since the last election and secondly, our belief in the ability of one party to be entrusted with the governance of the country.

In the history of the Indian elections lies a story about the how the Indian voter has fared in the electoral tests so far. 1977 is cited as the year of the maturing of the Indian voter. By rejecting Indira Gandhi's claim to autocratic power, the Indian voter had demonstrated its commitment to democracy which was really the core issue in that election. 1980 was a similar election. The old men of the Janata Party had proved unequal to the task of governing the nation and the voter elected back to power the 'natural party of governance' led by a chastened, if not improved, Indira Gandhi. Once again, the voter had demonstrated the ability to identify the core issue, evaluated the performance of the contenders and passed a verdict. Accolades were well deserved.

1984 was a milestone election year. The Congress should have been on the deck, justifying a miserable five years of governance. Instead, the voter brought it back to power under the new leadership of Rajiv Gandhi, on a sympathy vote. This was probably the first difficult test that the Indian electorate had faced in its short democratic life. The ruling party had failed by all measures that a ruling party should be evaluated by. The leader (Indira Gandhi) had shown little appreciation of the electoral message of 1977. It was only the style of her autocracy which had changed, not the fact of autocracy, witness T Anjaiah's appointment as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh.

Her assassination shocked the people which was exploited by the Congress to the fullest extent in the election. In ignoring to use the ballot as a measure of performance, the electorate revealed a crucial weakness. It could be diverted from core issues, if sufficient hype were built around, what I call, 'non-substantive' issues.

1989 was the last election in which the electorate showed itself capable of focusing on core and substantive issues. It chose to reject the corrupt and largely dysfunctional government that Rajiv Gandhi ran and brought to power V P Singh. That it ultimately turned out to be a bad decision is a separate story.

1991 was the first real test of the efficacy of the Indian voter. V P Singh had learnt the lesson of 1984 well -- the voter could be manipulated as long as a non-substantive issue could be made credible through sufficient hype. He chose the route of 'social engineering' through job reservations for OBCs. Unfortunately for him, the BJP had learnt the lesson from 1984 before him and better.

By choosing the Ram Mandir issue, the BJP had identified a more popular non-substantive issue to manipulate the Indian electorate with. Both of them were beaten to the post ultimately by the originator of the game, the Congress party, which used Rajiv Gandhi's assassination to play back the original fraud on the Indian voter. The Indian voter succumbed again, though since the trick was an old one, the reaction was not as dramatic as in 1984.

1991 was a crucial turning point. Each of the political contestants were focusing on issues which had little to do with the general well-being of the people. The Congress was offering once again 'unity' (defined as Congress rule), BJP a Mandir and V P Singh the mirage of large-scale employment. In the 50 years since Independence, the electorate has shown its commitment to the democratic process, enthusiastically participating in elections. It has also shown the ability to reject bad governance. It has, however, given no indication that it knows what kind of governance is good for its well-being.

In three of the last four elections, it has let non-substantive issues become the core issues in elections. It has let the political parties defraud it of the power of the ballot. As a result, in the 1998 election, it is faced with a most difficult choice. It has to select a government from three broad political groupings, with not one interested or committed to the well-being of the people.

The grouping centering around the Congress, which will probably include RJD, the BSP and a couple of others, has found its voice in the eminent personality of Sonia Gandhi. In a farce unbelievable to the rational person, they are debating whether Rajiv's assassination or the unity of the country will be the stronger campaign platform. This is the culmination of the process started in 1984 of manipulating the electorate with emotional, non-substantive issues.

Neither issue is of any importance today. But that is irrelevant to the Congress. It has the arrogance of a successful trickster. Having defrauded the electorate twice before on exactly the same issues, there is no reason for it to believe that it cannot pull it off again. In the area of governance ability, it has years of misrule, a bunch of power-hungry and mostly corrupt politicians and Sonia Gandhi as a possible prime minister to offer to the electorate. It is only fair that it has chosen to align with Laloo Yadav's RJD. Rabri Devi in Patna and Sonia Gandhi in Delhi is the sum total of the Congress-led alliance's electoral promise.

The BJP is these days the flavour of the season. Yet, look at what the BJP has to offer -- a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, a uniform civil code, repeal of Article 370. Can one of these be called critical issues facing the people of India? What about food for the poor, jobs for the unemployed, and better living conditions for all of us? If construction of the Ram Mandir will solve some of the problems that I face as an ordinary citizen, then let's go ahead and do that. But who in his/her right mind is going to give us that assurance?

In all probability, the government that the BJP will offer will mirror what it has in Uttar Pradesh -- an alliance of convenience, set up specifically to form a government. It will also be no different from the ineffective, corrupt governments that we have seen in the past 20 years. It will be corrupt because in its desperation for power the BJP is now willing to make any compromise, even take the support of corrupt politicians who see 'making money' as a natural extension of being in government. It will be ineffective because its ideological core is of non-substantive issues which have little to do with the overall well-being of the people.

That leaves us with the United Front. There is very little that can be said in favour of this opportunistic grouping. It has three main forces -- the Janata Dal, the Left parties and the regional parties, with opposition to the BJP and the Congress as the only common binding factor. The United Front, for all its posturing, is essentially a collection of parties without a common ideology or programme. Their failure to keep the Front 'united', the third time in the last 20 years, should rule them out as a group with capability to run a government.

But is not their inability to stick together which is the main problem. More importantly, every time they have formed a government, they have taken the country to the brink of disaster. True in 1980, true in 1991 and now true in 1998. It is not just that they cannot run an effective government, it is that they make such a terrible mess of it that every year that they spend in power puts the country behind by a couple.

The only conclusion that one comes to is that no party deserves to be in power. Yet, the democratic process does not offer the voter this choice. The Indian voter is on test precisely because of this. The choice that is made in February 1998 will pretty much seal the destinies of our generation, just as our parents's generation made their choices and hence their destinies in the elections of the 1960s.

Identifying the core issue in this election is not difficult. After years of misrule what we need is a dose, hopefully a sustained one, of honest and sincere governance. Honest and sincere governance can be provided by honest and sincere people and I am convinced that none of the political parties have such people in majority.

The only option left to the Indian electorate, then, is to ignore voting on the basis of political party affiliations. The only candidate worth voting for is one, who irrespective of the political party he belongs to, is demonstrably honest and committed to the well-being of the people. We have such candidates in every constituency in every election. They are essentially people troubled by the state of things and brave enough to attempt to do something about it. It is a telling comment on our times that most of them stand as independents because political parties consider them 'lightweights' and do not give tickets to them.

Voting for such candidates will serve many purposes. It will signal, first and foremost, a rejection. A rejection of the individuals who have made politics a 'cesspool', who have bartered our well-being for petty power games., who think crime, corruption and politics go together. If Parliament were to have mostly honest and dedicated individuals, we could expect some reform in the political clime. It will not be a lasting solution -- in a multi-party democracy, governance will ultimately lie in the hands of an organised political party. However, the electorate can use the vote to signal the rejection of the form of politics today as well as the individuals who practice it. Hopefully, the message will bring about some change.

As I said, the Indian voter is on test.

Shalabh Kumar, an IIT-Delhi/IIM-Calcutta alumnus, is currently based in Boston on an international assignment.

Election Views

Tell us what you think of this report