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regular-article-logo Monday, 22 July 2024

Constant verities

We may be confident that India will see elections happen regularly. The responsibility on the winners and near-winners is great, with the need for the two to work with mutual civility being paramount

Gopalkrishna Gandhi Published 23.06.24, 08:46 AM
Voters in the 1951-52 Lok Sabha elections (left) and the 2024 general elections

Voters in the 1951-52 Lok Sabha elections (left) and the 2024 general elections Sourced by the Telegraph

During the weeks when ‘election fever’ was upon us, we heard it said often and scarily that if, in this election, the ruling National Democratic Alliance was not defeated and Narendra Modi came back as prime minister, we will not have another election thereafter. The Congress president, Mallikarjun Kharge, said that repeatedly, as did the political economist, Parakala Prabhakar, persuasively.

Well, the NDA is back in power, Narendra Modi duly sworn-in as India’s prime minister, for the third time. But no one is saying that we will not have another election again.

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And this is where not the NDA but the Indian voter has won. Along with, one must say, Yogendra Yadav and his very carefully-worded prognoses.

Yes, the verdicts in Odisha, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh were emphatic, handing the NDA a triumph, as were those in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, handing the NDA a rout. But kul-milaake, to use the fantastic Hindi phrase that means ‘taking it all-in-all’, what the Indian voter has given to the NDA is not a verdict, but a lesson that says ‘I, the voter, am bigger than your presumptions of a landslide win.’ And what the voter has given the INDIA coalition is, again, not a ‘good result’ but the tuition that says: ‘You came to me, the voter, seeking justice and I have given it to you but if you want the ‘lift’ you have got to stay firm, hold it fast with clean hands.’

And reflecting on this amazingly nuanced and astonishingly sobering denouement, I thought of our very first election held over many weeks, in 1951-1952, which saw Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress swept to power at the Centre, for the first time, through the ballot.

As it played out, independent India’s first election was just about less-than-half an election, for less than half the number of eligible voters voted. And then less than half of those that did vote voted for the Congress, for Nehru. Which meant that a little over half of those who did vote did not vote for the Congress or for Nehru. But in the first-past-the-post system, this vote pattern gave the Congress 364 of the 489 seats (and over four times as many votes as the next-largest party, the Communist Party), and Nehru formed the first elected government of India with ease and éclat.

That election established five verities.

One, belying the grey prognostications of India-sceptics, it showed that India was in charge of India.

Two, vindicating the pragmatism of independent India’s opting for universal adult suffrage, it showed that the ‘illiterate’ Indian holds a post-doc inside the voting booths of the Republic.

Three, co-operating with the constitutionally-empowered independent Election Commission of India, the country showed it knew what its institutions were meant to be.

Four, vindicating India’s rejection of the Two-Nation Theory, it saw Hindus and Muslims voting together as one electoral college, as one political entity, and as one republican persona, to choose their legislators in fearless freedom.

Five, it made electoral India an exemplar for the newly-decolonising world, so much so that it was to seek out the services of Sukumar Sen (1898-1963) of the ICS, our first CEC.

But we must also take note, in all fairness, that five other truths about that election also emerged.

One, voter turnout being less than 50% — 45.7% to be precise — the Indian electorate was shown to be liable to democratic ennui, a portentous sign for the future.

Two, with 55% of the votes cast going to non-Congress but disparate candidates, the election signalled the fact that India’s Opposition parties, divided, would in all likelihood, kul-milaake, face defeat.

Three, among those defeated being two stalwarts who stood in opposition to the Congress — Acharya Kripalani and Babasaheb Ambedkar — in Faizabad (UP) and Bombay North, respectively, by inconsequential Congress candidates, the elections showed that voters often vote out of party loyalty than out of reason.

Four, the elections showed that an individual leader — Nehru at that time — exercises, as an icon, great sway over the Indian electorate.

Five, Calcutta, in returning from two segments of its constituent parts two Mukherjees with diametrically-opposed ideologies in combat — Syama Prasad Mookerjee from the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and Hiren Mukerjee from the Communist Party of India — the elections showed in a ‘trailer’, as it were, that the Right and the Left would be in contestation, albeit in different colours, for the future of India.

Ambedkar had stood from Bombay North, a ‘reserved’ seat under the terms of the Poona Pact, as a Scheduled Castes Federation candidate. He was defeated by the little-known former associate, the Congress candidate, Narayan Sadoba Kajrolkar, who polled 1,38,137 votes compared to Ambedkar’s 1,23,576 votes. The Congress need not have opposed the chairman of the Constituent Assembly’s Drafting Committee and India’s first law minister. It would have been handsome of it to have said, ‘We differ from Dr Ambedkar, but we respect him and hold his presence in our first elected Lok Sabha to be important and will not contest his candidature.’ But, no. He was opposed. A herb of inestimable value was smothered by a weed in the garden of India’s republic.

As was Kripalani, who had been president of the Congress when India became independent and was the first to be called upon to speak in the Constituent Assembly. We know he could not make it in that first election to the first Lok Sabha. But few remember who defeated him.

All the above-listed ten verities hold today, none more than the one that shows some truly good candidates can lose, denying Parliament political stature.

The elections just concluded can also be seen as showing the following five major verities.

One, if the height of a candidate’s stature is strong it can defeat the weight of money; if not, money and its propaganda-power stand to do well.

Two, if a people’s collective sense of self-respect is hurt, nothing can win against that hurt.

Three, a woman seen as wronged is a hundred times stronger than the strongest candidate.

Four, the standing of the Election Commission of India, despite several blips, continues to be high.

Five, the Two-Nation Theory continues to be rejected by the Indian voter.

But five other features need to be noted as well.

One, voter ennui is still a factor, depressing voting percentages, making real voter preference unclear.

Two, the phenomenon of the political turncoat, who switches parties and loyalties without embarrassment, is getting accepted as ‘normal’.

Three, the language of election campaigning has sunk to the deepest of putrefying sewers.

Four, the naming and co-opting, as also the naming and shaming, of communities has grown.

Five — and this is to be counted a great blessing — neither the third nor the fourth verity stated above has really impacted voter-judgement.

So, we may be confident that India will see elections happen regularly, with its weaknesses being overtaken by its strengths. The responsibility on both the winners and near-winners is great, with the need for the two to work with mutual civility being paramount. For this, the new Lok Sabha will need a Speaker selected unanimously for complete freedom from biases, who, on becoming Speaker, will relinquish party affiliations and reflecting the nuanced verdict of the Indian voter, be a true representative of the bhagya vidhata of Bharat’s electoral democracy, the post-doc Indian voter.

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