Do Elections make a difference?

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Sunday Debate

Mr A The present elections in India have been accompanied by a huge media campaign that one must vote and participate in the political process. An urgency of sorts was generated because of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Citizens turned out to hold candle light marches amidst total disgust with our leaders. A feeling was generated, at least in the media, that people should vote and elect the leaders whom they liked. The question that was asked was: if people don’t vote, do they have the right to protest against their leaders? Yet, voter turnout has not been too inspiring. It would seem that people have gone back to their lives and do not care about voting. From the point of view of majority of voters, they don’t care two hoots for their leaders, perhaps because they know that things will not change, whether or not they vote. That is the background of this debate: do elections make a difference to people? Has the political process left out the aspirations of the people?

Mr B I would say this is not the case. Elections do generate a lot of excitement in the country. People are interested in the political process. Otherwise how do you explain the great reversals in elections: the loss of Indira Gandhi despite her huge popularity? Closer in time, who could have thought that the BJP would be wiped out in the last elections despite being led by a stalwart like Vajpayee? So it is wrong to say that elections do not make a difference. People do see and analyse the policies of their government and are able to vote and seal the fate of leaders who have let them down. This time also it will not be any different. I would say that most people keep watching silently, at least the majority. These people do not speak on television debates but have a strong opinion of their own. If elections do not make a difference, how would you explain the great electoral reversals that we have seen in the past?

Mr C I agree with your point of view, but if you go beyond electoral reversals, you will see why there is voter apathy. Actually there is no choice before the voter. Whether it is BJP, Congress or the Third Front, they all are the same. Whether we choose one or the other, we know that there is no party in India that can tackle the issues confronting the people of India: corruption, caste-based reservations or affordable education and healthcare. Rather than talk about these issues, every party is spewing forth poison against one community or the other. Even the young leaders are no better, as was shown by the Varun Gandhi episode. Parties are talking about the Kandahar episode or the demolition at Ayodhya—unfortunately these are not issues that affect the people. The electoral process in the country has fragmented the population in a way that even the British could not. Can you blame the voter that he is apathetic? Vote or not, he knows that he will have to pay a bribe to get things done from a government office. So I would say that elections in India is a wasteful exercise, because nothing changes for people.

Mr B The problem also is with the fact that we do not know whom to vote for. Since no party is able to get the majority, the scramble for MPs starts after the election. It is usually an ugly spectacle, with small parties offering themselves to the highest bidder. The party that emerges with the majority does not have voter mandate, so actually the vote of the people goes waste. For example, in one of the earlier elections Mr Hegde was able to emerge as the Prime Minister of the country, even though none of us knew his name before the elections. In the last elections, the Congress was able to patch up a majority and pulled out Manmohan Singh as the country’s leader, as if from a magician’s hat, because he was seen as a humble and obsequious to the party president. He was the non-controversial candidate who would not rock the boat by taking decisions on his own, and the arrangement served the party well. The BJP had done the same—it installed Vajpayee because he was the non-controversial, liberal face of the party, but it did not change its colours and was defeated. So I would say that the electoral system is flawed. We don’t know our leaders, we don’t know who will be chosen by the parties when the voting is done, we don’t know the policies that the government will make. So what’s the point of the elections?

Mr D Elections are the backbone of our democracy. Even if the system is flawed, can we say that elections do not make a difference? Look at the countries that do not have elections: they are dictatorships or ruled by armies. Whatever the flaws, I am glad that we are not in that category. We may not have a part to play in selecting the Prime Minister, but we certainly have the power to throw out leaders whom we do not like. That is quite a big thing. We are counted today with great countries like USA, UK and France, because we are all democracies. We have citizen and human rights, unlike people in China and Russia. There is accountability of the elected leaders towards the electorate. We cannot and should not wish it away. Despite all the flaws, elections do serve a very important function.

Mr E I think none of us have any problems with the democratic system in our country. A democratic system is definitely better than any other political system. However, the problem is that the system has become so corrupted that voters are turning away from it. You cannot subscribe to the argument that we deserve the government that we get because we don’t vote. The point is that even if we vote, we cannot remove criminals from politics, we cannot make the government act when we are attacked, we cannot remove the policeman who demands a bribe from us, we cannot even meet our Prime Minister and express our concerns because of his heavy security. What kind of democracy is this?

Mr A I agree with you. Our leaders preach development but encourage people who beat up girls wearing jeans or going to pubs. They play the caste and religion card. So where is the choice? Whether we vote or not, these things are going to stay. That is why we say that elections do not make a difference. Perhaps the answer to this riddle is that the political system should be reformed. No big reforms are needed, just implementation of existing laws. Parties fielding criminals should be banned, parties asking for votes on caste or religion propaganda should also likewise face penalties. Parties should also declare their leaders before the elections and make their position clear in terms of patching up with regional powers before the elections. Without such considerations, you cannot blame the people of India from turning away from the electoral process.

Mr B The voter is quite helpless. All he can do is to hold candle-light marches. The system remains exploitative. Instead of electing leaders who can represent us in Parliament, we are forced to elect leaders who treat their term as an opportunity to enjoy the privileges of power and to amass wealth. You can say that we have the power to throw them out—and we do—but is that the purpose of voting? Somewhere along the line we have forgotten that the purpose of democracy is to elect leaders who can represent our concerns, instead we are forced to vote for regressive people who come out with strange policies like banning English, beating up people for wearing a dress they disapprove of, or declaring that a particular city is for people of a certain State.

Mr C A lot of interesting points came up for discussion today. I think we all agreed that there is apathy among the people and we also know that voting will not change the exploitative system. So, while we are not against the democratic process, all of us feel that if some basic laws are implemented, people will be more willing to take part in the political process. The voice of the people has been lost in the electoral din. It is time it is recovered, to save our democracy. We want to be a vibrant, modern country, but our leaders are holding us back by talking about caste, region and religion. If we can eliminate these three non-issues from the political life and are able to get a leader who can address the real issues of the people, I am sure that people will respond to him. Unfortunately, for the past many years we have not had even one leader who could rise above narrow electoral gains to address the issues affecting people. That is why people feel that elections do not make a difference. I just hope that some leader realizes this in the future and puts us on the path to growth, as also above all narrow non-issues.

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