The greatest and the grandest exercise in democracy is underway. The sheer heft of Indian elections can be gauged from the fact that, this time round, a humongous 814 million voters have a once-in-5-year opportunity to choose their representatives. This, coupled with the fact that the current elections will take over 5 weeks to accomplish, truly makes it a spectacle to behold. Given Indian elections’ violent history, security remains the major reason behind the inexplicably long duration of elections (Brazil, Indonesia take a single day to get through theirs). The Election Commission of India deploys only the better trained and unbiased Central Security Forces (11 million in all), and not the state police, for protection of polling booths, which is why the elections are split into as many as 9 different phases.
Of course, the most amazing fact about Indian elections is that, despite the obvious complexities involved, they have been largely free and fair, especially post-1994, when, TN Sheshan, India’s erstwhile Chief Election Commissioner, introduced some sweeping reforms to completely overhaul the electoral process. The elections make India unique amongst countries of the world in being a flourishing democracy at such low levels of per capita GDP.
Despite the usual fanfare surrounding Indian elections, the ferocity with which this edition is being contested, not just by the politicians and their acolytes, but even by the average Joe, has taken the most seasoned political analysts by surprise. Of course, the deep penetration of digital technology, led by social media, has piqued the Indian electorate’s interest. Clearly, the outreach enabled by digital technology has helped to bolster the quality of Indian democracy by facilitating discourse and dissemination of information. However, it has also often been hijacked by vested interests to spread false propaganda, not just about their own greatness, but even about the devilry of their opponents, with unprecedented ease and rapidity. The digital media, coupled with modest levels of political awareness, has given rise to an army of arm-chair political activists in the country.
Thankfully, the storm kicked up by these elections has not just given birth to the sometimes way-below-the-belt diatribes exchanged between politicians and their supporters, but also to much healthier voting percentages in most parts of India. However, the fact that India’s metros continue to record much lower voting percentages than the smaller towns and villages shows that social media can only have so much impact on the outcome of the elections, and most arm-chair activists prefer the comfort of air-conditioned rooms to venturing out in the sun for a few minutes to cast their vote.
These elections will also be known for the 23 million youth voters (between 18-25), who’ve, for the first time, made political parties stand up and take notice of this hitherto ignored demographic. Almost every party has made special provisions, focusing on job creation and education, in its manifesto. Daring to go beyond their comfort zone, a lot of highly educated youth have also directly or indirectly affiliated with parties of their choice. A certain new political outfit on the horizon, called AAP, must take major credit for galvanizing youth into a force to reckon with. AAP has seen a meteoric rise based on their anti-corruption and clean politics agenda. Based on exhortations by youth, largely led by AAP, politicians have paid lip service to fielding honest candidates without a criminal record. However, the ground reality seems to be the same since nearly 1/3 of candidates have criminal charges against them, a proportion very similar to that of the current Parliament members. Even 12% of AAP’s candidates have criminal charges against them.
The ongoing elections are also unique in the fact that they’re almost presidential style, in that the parties have taken a backseat and their demigod like leaders are driving the voters’ choices. Presently, there seems to be only one forerunner for the post of the PM, Narendra Modi (from the party called BJP), a man who’s been worshipped and hated in equal measure (more on the reasons later) by Indians from different walks of life. Opinion polls have given him a good chance at becoming PM, though this in no way means he faces no credible opposition. Indian political theatre is a jamboree of actors, minor and major, from all parts of the nation, and each of these almost perpetually dreams of securing the top post. Whether or not Mr. Modi is able to become PM depends entirely on his skills to win over such regional leaders in an alliance in order to secure a minimum of 272 seats, which would mean majority in the 543 seat Lower house of Indian Parliament, called Lok Sabha.
The incumbent government, an alliance of over 10 parties called United Progressive Alliance (UPA), faces a massive trust deficit vis-à-vis the Indian electorate and could see its strength in Parliament being eroded massively. At the helm of UPA is the Congress party, which alone holds 206 seats from the 2009 elections, and could see its tally reduced to below 100 this time round. A bystander-like PM, myriads of corruption scams, crippled economic growth, rapidly deteriorating security situation (both internal and external), gargantuan and wasteful subsidies, are some of the factors which have brought the UPA to its knees. In the face of such resentment, the Indian electorate seems naturally inclined towards Mr. Modi, who’s been Chief Minister (CM) of the Indian state of Gujarat for the past 12 years, and has delivered stupendous economic growth under impeccable law and order conditions. But his appeal is not just due to a lack of better alternative, Mr. Modi is a gifted orator, capable of stupefying crowds as large as half a million for as long as two hours, all in the baking Indian summer. He has become the darling of the Indian corporate world, which perceives him as the only leader capable of making India climb the ‘Ease of Doing Business Index.’ Mr. Modi talks tough and, as a welcome break from the usual tenor of Indian politics, rubbishes talks of community-based reservations and more subsidies. He carries the message of unity and progress for Indian people, and his message has been carried far and wide by his PR machinery, arguably the most efficient and widespread in the democratic world. Mr. Modi’s popularity has also surged by leaps and bounds due to the obvious contrasts against his major political opponent, Rahul Gandhi (great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru), the baby-faced leader of Congress Party, who comes across as a reluctant and naïve politician, as opposed to Mr. Modi’s fluent oratory and tall ambitions to lead the country.
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