In India, astrologers are paid much better and respected far more than historians. But their profession is altogether more risky. Who, when the people of India went to the polls in the winter of 1951-2, could ever have predicted that this general election would be the first of very many? Not a respected Madras editor, who dismissed India’s tryst with electoral democracy as the “biggest gamble in history”. Not an Oxford-educated civil servant, who, when asked to supervise the polls in Manipur, wrote to his father that “a future and more enlightened age will view with astonishment the absurd farce of recording the votes of millions of illiterate people”. Not the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose journal, the Organiser, was certain that Jawaharlal Nehru “would live to confess the failure of universal adult franchise in India”. Sceptical about this “leap in the dark”, this “precipitate dose of democracy”, the Organiser complained that Nehru, “who has all along lived by slogans and stunts, would not listen”.
As it happens, Nehru’s faith was shared by millions of ordinary Indians. They chose to disregard the warnings of Hindu reactionaries, Oxford scholars, and English-speaking editors. A staggering 107 million Indians cast their franchise in the 1952 elections, this by far the greatest exercise of democratic will in human history. The record set then has been beaten 13 times — each time by Indians. And in the summer of 2009 the record will be superseded once more.
Before India, no society steeped in poverty and illiteracy had ever experimented with electoral democracy. Before India, no polity, large or small, had granted adults of both genders the vote at one fell swoop. In older democracies such as France, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America, the privilege was first extended to rich men, later to educated men, then to all men, and finally, after a very long struggle, to women as well. Even a supposedly ‘advanced’ country such as Switzerland permitted its women citizens to vote only as late as 1971. On the other hand, in independent India the franchise was immediately granted to all adults, regardless of education, wealth, gender or caste. The American constitution was adopted in 1787, but people of colour have effectively had the right to vote only since the 1960s. However, Dalits in India voted, and Dalit candidates were elected to Parliament, within two years of the writing of our own Constitution.
Electoral democracy in India was an act of faith, a challenge to logic and the received wisdom, perhaps even the biggest gamble in history. That it has now gone through so many iterations should be a matter of pride for Indians. Not least because our elections are free and fair. The Election Commission of India enjoys an enviable reputation for efficiency and neutrality. As recently as 2000, an American presidential election was decided by faulty balloting and biased judges. But we can be certain that the 2009 general election in India will more reliably reflect the will of the people.
Who will this verdict favour? Even the most trained psephologist (or astrologer) will not, I think, go so far as to offer an unambiguous answer to this question, to thus make himself hostage to a prediction that may go horribly wrong. For all one can safely say about the next general elections is that, like the six that immediately preceded it, no single party will get a majority in Parliament. Three options present themselves — first, that the Congress and its allies will somehow cobble together a majority; second, that the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies shall beat them to the magic figure of 272; third, that neither alliance will achieve its aim, thus making room for a minority ‘third front’ government propped up by either the BJP or the Congress.
The rise of coalition governments is a product of the deepening of Indian democracy. Our country is too large and too diverse to be adequately represented by a single party, or to be ruled in turn by two rival ‘national’ parties either. Thus communities that claim disadvantage on the basis of region, language or caste have articulated their grievances through political parties set up to represent their interests. At the local level, these identity-based parties have sometimes promoted a more inclusive politics, by giving space to groups previously left out of governance and administration. However, when aggregated at the level of the nation, these regional diversities lead to irrational and excessively short-term outcomes. Despite their grand-sounding names, neither the United Progressive Alliance nor the National Democratic Alliance has a coherent ideology that serves to bind the alliance’s partners. Smaller parties join the BJP or the Congress on a purely opportunistic basis, seeking to extract profitable ministerships or subsidies to vote banks in exchange for political support.
This historian is hesitant to assume the role of an astrologer, but less hesitant to stake his claim to be a citizen. As I said, we should all take pride in the fact that after 60 testing years of freedom we are still somewhat united and somewhat democratic. But we might take less pride in the conduct of our political parties and politicians. The ‘hardware’ of Indian democracy, by which I mean the machinery and conduct of elections, is robust and intact. The ‘software’ of democracy, by which I mean the processes by which we are governed in-between elections, is corrupt and corroded.
What might be done to redeem this? How might the political process be made more efficient and more sensitive to the needs of the citizens? Here are a few concrete suggestions for how we may improve Indian politics in the year 2009 and beyond:
First, promote bipartisanship on issues of national security and foreign policy. The Congress and the BJP are equally guilty here. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Srinagar, as the first prime minister to do so in more than a decade, Sonia Gandhi asked the Congress ministers in the state government to boycott his speech. More recently, when several years of peace were threatened by the Amarnath controversy, L.K. Advani worked to intensify the conflicts between Jammu and the Kashmir valley, when he could have instead chosen to collaborate with the government to resolve them. On the question of terrorism, too, the BJP and the Congress seek to wound the other party rather than to make common cause in the national interest. When the idea of India is itself in peril, there must be no place for the politics of vindictive opposition.
Second, promote lateral entry into government. One reason Western states are better run than ours is that top jobs are not a monopoly of party apparatchiks and civil servants. Rather, qualified technologists, lawyers, entrepreneurs and journalists are encouraged to enter government in posts suited to their skills. Why should a successful businessman not be eligible to be made commerce secretary, or a brilliant scientist education secretary?
Third, restore Parliament as a theatre for reasoned debate, which it indeed was for the first quarter-century of its existence. The first few Lok Sabhas met for some 150 times a year; now, we are lucky if Parliament convenes for 80 days a year. And when they are not on holiday, the members of parliament seek not to speak themselves but to stop others from speaking.
Fourth, put pressure on political parties to voluntarily adopt a retirement age. No one more than 70 years of age should be permitted by their party to contest elections or hold office. In a young country and fast-moving world, to have octogenerians running state governments or seeking to be prime minister simply won’t do.
Fifth, act on the EC’s suggestion and include, on the ballot paper, the category “None of the above”, to be inserted after the list of candidates for each constituency. The right not to vote, and to make it known that an individual will not vote , is a natural extension of the democratic right to choose a particular candidate or party to represent oneself.
As the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks has underlined, the disenchantment with politicians runs deep in India. However, the slogans that currently express this disgust — “Jail all corrupt politicians”, “Do not pay your taxes”, and so on — are either wholly negative, or wholly impractical, or both.
On the other hand, the proposals outlined above are both positive as well as realistic. They are intended to make Indian democracy something more than the periodic exercise of the popular right to vote. That right is, of course, indispensable — and we should be thankful that, unlike some other countries in our neighbourhood, we can exercise it yet again in 2009. But we cannot be content with this. And so, in the interval between the 15th and the 16th general elections, let us promote bipartisanship in foreign policy, encourage talented professionals to enter government, restore the integrity of Parliament, send old politicians into a dignified retirement, and add, to the right to vote, the right not to vote as well.