There is a line in L Frank Baums The Marvelous Land of Oz that rings true for India this week – “Everything has to come to an end, sometime.” For the last two years, Indians were waiting with baited breath for 2014. Elections in any country spell multiple things. They make democracy palpable. They reinforce choice, representation and the existence of systems. They ensure citizens acknowledge their citizenship. But most significantly, they stand for change, whether for better or for worse.
The 2014 elections in India were significant for two primary reasons among others. First, they raised political awareness in every section of the society. To most, politics in theory is too abstract, philosophical and esoteric. Not to mention, politics in practice is corrupt, crass and even criminal. These elections enabled citizens to pontificate on politics and its intricacies, within their intellectual capacity. They ensured that Indians of different strata of the society thought about their politics and defined perceptions. Whether it was the intellectuals regularly questioning the political discourse, professionals wondering about the impact of politics on industry and economics, fiery students participating in a created version of a revolution to explore their leanings or the layman who was enamoured by the campaigns to rabidly tweet, if not directly vote. These elections removed political apathy in India to a large extent and the high voter turnout of 66.38% demonstrated this.
Second, they ensured that the political debates that occurred in the country transgressed election one-liners such as Roti, Kapda, Makaan and “India Shining” alone. Elections became about growth and development, even if only in talk. Whether people knew of the intricacies of the Lok Pal Bill, corruption frustrated them and they saw its correlation to politics. Pluralism, secularism and social integration became serious talking points, outside the ambit of identity or vote bank politics. Though the political discourse eventually succumbed (and at times crossed the line) to the usual crassness required during elections, it was preceded by opinions, questions and answers on policy making for social welfare, growth or reaching out to different population sectors.
The 2014 elections will no doubt be remembered as the turning point in Indian political history. But their significance does not only end at the candidates, the campaigns, the speeches, the awareness and the technicalities involved in its process. These elections ensured that there was marked emergence of ideological camps (where none existed) within the Indian political space. This was both flabbergasting and tragic. Flabbergasting because India, unlike the US, does not have a clear bi-partisan system. We do not have the intellectual demarcations for the economic left and right, the social conservative and liberal and the religiously moderate and fundamentalist. What we have is an amalgamation of multiple ideologies and leanings emerging within our politics, with parties absorbing what is applicable to them as and when necessary.
A reiterated fact remains that at the economic front, the party known to be pro-market and investment friendly seems to oppose the FDI in multiband retail, while the propagandists of social welfare rally behind it. Leaders of the so-called economic right have in the past praised core welfare schemes such as NREGA at international platforms. The younger parties against corruption and crony capitalism talk little about their economic stance or alternatives, hand out subsidies, and induct industrialists while claiming to be market friendly. They back clean governance and advocate for strong anti-corruption laws, however also proclaim to be anarchists when seeped deep into the system of governance, law and order. The point remains that there is no black and white in India’s political economics. The economic Left and Right are blurred entities shifting according to the political realities on the same vertical axis.
At the social, cultural, religious and ideological level, political parties use discourses that appeal to them as and when necessary. This is a reality of politics across the world, while some conservative parties are explicitly bigoted and wield words to their favour to be “politically correct”, some manipulate these in their favour only when necessary, and some which acknowledge such issues, never make it an actual tangible talking point. Indubitably, these issues are of serious importance in a country such as ours and cannot be pushed into the fringes. The Indian Constitution does three things with respect to its interpretation of secularism- One, it recognises different religions as living entities in India, as opposed to say France. Two, it ensures that citizens have the right to practice and accommodate religion and belief in their daily life. Three, it staunchly advocates for the separation of religion from the governance machinery and institutions. For India to survive in its current form it is of extreme importance that this is held on to at all costs, as this is the base on which India and its multifarious citizenry coexists and law and order prevails. This also sets precedence for the larger space for culture, tradition and identity.
There are other “softer issues” of individual liberty, free speech, non-partisan academic systems, equality, tolerance and an open society that are necessary facets of a democracy. Given the eclecticism and plurality of every aspect of an Indian identity, it is these marginal issues that paint the character of the country and colour the enforcement of the rule of law in the long run. These should be of serious considerations and seen as values that are worth fighting for if we are to preserve the nature, rather than the idea of India.
The tragedy of these elections was that they tried to convince the Indian voter that India can have one of the three positive options—economic growth, development and good governance; or preservation of secularism, social welfare and poverty alleviation; or a revolutionary brigade of charged up political novices determined to offer clean, good governance that is responsive to its citizens needs. The Indian voter was asked to believe that one was the price to be paid for the other, before the new government was formed. The Indian voter forgot to be idealistic and demand everything from each of the parties contesting. Why should a government not ensure good governance, law and order, economic growth, explicit secularism and pluralism, industrialisation, liberty, health care, sanitation, education, infrastructure, development and an overall Utopian state of affairs? Why did an entire election find itself reduced to a debate over growth vs. secularism (with corruption as a fringe topic) instead or demands of growth, secularism and everything else nice?
Elections are a time for the voters to want the best from their candidates, to be convinced, to choose one over the others. It is a time to go beyond political realities and aspire towards perfection. As citizens, despite our ideology or leanings, we should have wanted a lot more than was offered in campaigns from all sides. The demands of the citizens should set the bar for the governance to come. It is only after the government is elected that it faces the push and pull factors of governance, and ensures that it prioritises, as it governs. The Indian citizens maybe, unfortunately forgot this. In less than a week, the new government will be declared. In all probability, it will be a coalition of some sort. There will be multiple ideologies and agendas that will emerge. Lets hope that the voter who may have thought these elections were a situation of binaries is not too disappointed.
Sarah Farooqui works at the Takshashila Institution