All of yesterday’s excitement, its highs and lows, its emotion, are behind us. It doesn’t matter who you or I voted for, and perhaps it doesn’t even matter who won—this was a free and fair election, and the meaning of democracy is that sometimes your side wins and sometimes it loses. Many of us stood in the polling booth last month, unable to decide even then who we would give our vote to; many, many more were clear and decisive. We have a government with an absolute Parliamentary majority. It’s a new day, and move on, we must. There is much to do.
Throughout this campaign, we discussed whether gender issues were relevant. They had become important enough that women’s manifestos were written, women’s rights and safety found a place in party manifestos and countless journalists (and non-journalists) wrote articles on the subject. But what was clear was that we were entering election season without enough groundwork to transform the groundswell on women’s rights into a real understanding or substantial participation. The real work, it was acknowledged, would come after the elections.
The percentage of women members in the new Parliament is not different from before. But today, as we start, can we get more women in the Council of Ministers—more women with substantial portfolios, not relegated to “ladies’ concerns”? Can MPs guilty of misogynistic speech and charge-sheeted on gender violence offences be taken off ministry and Parliamentary office shortlists now? Could all Parliamentarians commit to including women constituents in their consultations and taking cognizance of their needs in resource allocation? Could all Parliamentarians open lines of communication with women’s groups in their constituencies? Could parties commit to in-house study and reading groups to give women the confidence to participate and speak up in policy discussions? Could all of us insist on more women being nominated to posts and to election candidacies in the next five years? If gender equality is a shared agenda, then all of us must make it happen now. If it is not, then all the post-December 2012 outrage was just a sham.
I think we need to frame and start a public conversation about how elections are financed. One of the most striking features of the 2014 election was the contrast in resources across the political spectrum. Where the winning candidate paid for long advertisements that were screened in the middle of prime-time programmes, candidates from smaller parties were walking door-to-door with their friends and crowd-sourcing on Facebook. One independent candidate sent personal emails to the people she knew, saying she was only standing because there were no female candidates in this constituency. She knew she couldn’t win, but this was important enough to her that she invested in the deposit and a website. This contrast in resources has broken my heart.
For me, the true winners in this election were Lok Satta and Aam Aadmi Party. Lok Satta has battled against the big players for several elections now, slowly and steadily gaining in profile and credibility. They remain in the game, unfazed by defeat. Aam Aadmi Party field outstanding candidates, many of whom have given their life to public service already. Candidates from these parties canvassed door-to-door, counting on the physical and fiscal support of friends. The energy these parties brought to this election will have a lasting impact on India’s democracy, I hope.
And one aspect of this impact should be that we start asking about how elections are financed. I just described this as a free and fair election, but how can it be that with such a huge disparity in resources? Experts in Delhi think-tanks have written on and discussed campaign financing for a long time but it’s time we made that discussion our own, and figured out how we can offer everyone a common financial base, how we can regulate how much can be donated and how much can be spent. This is our problem. Money determines reach and those with deep pockets can out-reach all their opponents.
A government with an absolute majority is not a government with a two-thirds majority using Emergency powers. But still, this is a time to remember that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” and to rigorously practise an alert citizenship style. This means, we stay informed. We take the trouble to learn context when we respond, and when we respond, we are constructive. This might mean that when it is our ‘side’ that needs feedback or course-correction, we are honest and proactive. And it means that when we are in the opposition, we remember that the problems we are trying to solve are shared ones, even though the hot seat isn’t. A majority government presents all of us with the opportunity to tackle problems without the distraction of coalition management or a raucous Parliament (we hope). We should all try and make the most of these five years. In all instances, it means insisting on transparency and accountability, and taking responsibility for facilitating a communication loop between citizenry, civil society and government.
For me, most of all, this is a time for peace work, and first, the kind that begins within each one of us. Peace activism that involves armed conflict parties sitting across a table is only the most exterior kind of peace work. The hardest part begins in our hearts, and that work begins today in this bitterly polarised country—not less polarised for one side having won an election decisively.
For those of us who have dreaded the formation of this government, this is a time to accept the reality that most Indians do not agree with us. We have had our moment of emotion, and petulance cannot be our five-year plan. This is a time for dialogue, and I do mean dialogue with quiet, honest words and an open heart. At least now, let us talk to each other across this divide that we see and they don’t. For those of us who have longed for this government, this is a time to remember that democracy is not a child’s game, and to eschew the triumphant, gleeful tone of “I told you so”. Even more unacceptable is the exasperated and angry, “My god, you still don’t see what I see?” that is emerging everywhere on social networks in response to expressions of disappointment. It reinforces the biggest fear that detractors of this government have: that its first casualty will be freedom of expression and the right to dissent. Those of us who “won” yesterday bear extra responsibility for creating spaces for dialogue.
As we leave this election, the framing of issues that has prevailed tells us that on one side there is indecision, lack of leadership, corruption but some kind of secular democracy and on the other, there is fast-track development, scam-free and focused leadership which takes tough if sometimes harsh and intolerant decisions. But binaries never accurately represent life. It is only through dialogue that we can arrive at political options that disaggregate and restructure these attributes in ways that present genuine choice.
On the morning after, there is a sense of urgency about the work at hand. We cannot linger—to gloat or to lament—in this moment. We have only five years to create the perfect climate for the next round, and a finite number of opportunities to rehearse until then. I know where I am going to start. You?
(Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training and the founder of Prajnya)