Sunday, May 10, 2009

Decision Time in India

We are now in the final week of India's General Election, and we shall know the results by the end of this week. The political maneuvers are already on and one can see possibilities of coalition, including some impossible ones like a Congress-BJP coalition, emerging suddenly. This is going to be interesting to watch, indeed.

That said, this is a crucial election. May be one of the most crucial ones. I am no expert in Indian politics, so can not really say where it will rank in significance. One can possibly argue that this is as important as the one in early 90s, when India needed to get its economic policy right rather desperately, and needed a stable and decisive government therefore. Or, one can also say that this is as important as the one in 1977, which was watershed in the sense that it dawned a new era in Indian politics. I am tempted to go even further and compare this with India's first election in 1951, which tested the idea of the republic and was crucial for the survival of the Indian union.

Let's talk for a moment about that election in 1951. We had a newly independent country, scarred by the direct effect of the Second World War, an war with Pakistan in Kashmir, a violent partition and the assassination of the man who kept the country together for three decades. There was no Sardar Patel, the strong man who forced the miscellaneous princely states into the union. It was a fractious country, where most people were desperately poor, illiterate and did not care about the government in Delhi. The provinces, as it was then called, were only somehow kept together in the union. The only truly national political institution that time was the Congress party, which, under the stewardship of Gandhi, extended its appeal to people outside the cities and somewhat brought the whole India together. [In fact, one should contradict the opinion of various British historians that the colonial administration created India as a modern state; it was indeed the Congress Party and Gandhi, which gave India a national sense and an identity]

Standing in the middle of that chaos, we chose to be democratic. Many observers have said, perhaps correctly, that this whole idea came from overtly British education of the founding fathers of Indian state. But India did not have much of a choice but democracy because of its diversity - the constituent assembly could not even agree on the primacy of the Hindi language because of the objections from South Indian representatives and had to keep English as an alternative official language for a period of 15 years. So, a political system was devised to keep the country together - a vote which will bring the modern political culture to the homes and villages of India, would give everyone a say and make the society function without getting pulled to different direction. Besides, this election was conducted based on universal suffrage. So, regardless of whether one had property or was literate, one could vote [in many countries, including in the Southern American states, Afro-Americans were disenfranchised on these grounds till as recently as 1965]. In summary, this election was the medium of bringing the idea of India to its citizens, and bridging the political class with an idea of common nationhood.

I think this is the key reason why India remained united throughout its sixty year history, despite many historians predicting its implosion before, during and after its formation. Churchill thought India is no more a country than the Equator, but we held this together on an unique, and bold, political idea. While Indians let their families choose their spouses and defer to collective wisdom for most things in life, suddenly they were given a vote and a private moment inside a polling booth to exercise their choice how they want to be governed - a fantastic feat which the nation fell in love with. So, the elections in 1951 finally took the politics to everyone, built us as a nation, and institutionalized the republic.

We have come a full circle now. This is the election when most political pundits predicted that pre-poll formations and manifestos would not matter. The coalitions will be formed post-poll, depending on the seats available. And, the political parties said so too, with Congress clearly indicating that regardless of their coalition partners, they are keeping their doors open to the Leftists, Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu, and Nitish Kumar in Bihar. The BJP, while trying to sound tough on national security issues, keeping the door open to everyone who would want to join them, including the Akali Dal in Punjab and AGP in Assam, who may not share their views of India at all. And, then, there is Left, who would want to do it like the BJP, who have cobbled together a grand alliance of past and aspiring Prime Ministers, on a single principle of capturing power. The alienation of politics from people is now complete.

So, next week's results will be interesting to watch. The whole idea of republic and universal franchise is up for a mandate, and the political class is almost certain to let the electorate down. But then the contours of the election is surely interesting to watch, and the undoing of one of greatest political experiments of the last century will now slowly unfold. We don't know which - the ineptness of Congress, the cluelessness of BJP or the unscrupulousness of the Third Front - will be our undoing, but we know that the union of India will become a more untenable concept if the political class can not reinvent the idea of India yet again, and show the citizens value of their vote and their voice. This is the big question for next week - we shall wait and watch out for.

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