The beast that is Indian democracy

Posted in India | 10-Mar-09 | Author: Santwana Bhattacharya| Source: Asia Times

Technicians check Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) at a warehouse in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad March 9, 2009. India will hold a general election between April 16 and May 13, election officials said on March 2, kicking off a mammoth process in which 714 million people will be able to cast their votes.

NEW DELHI - There is a tired old joke among journalists in India that even passing social fads, special interest groups or local cults on the sub-continent could touch as many numbers as some Western democracies have in terms of total population. (Appropriately enough for a country that invented the zero, it has a lot of uses for that digit - as the millennium turned, it added a zero to its own population figure to make it 1 billion.) And there's nothing like an Indian national election to unfurl the full scope of this vast human capital - the majesty, the rancor, the sound of millions of people bargaining all at once.

If the sheer scale of an event could leave one breathless, this is it. One may have issues with the carnivalesque nature of the democracy, question its true representative character, even occasionally give a call for boycott - as dissenting rebel groups in strife-torn border states often do. But as this gigantic machine cranks into motion, few can stifle wonder at the fact that all of it is in one piece and it actually works.

India preparing to vote means an electorate of 714 million people getting ready to elect their representatives to the 543-member Lower House of parliament, or the Lok Sabha. This cannot be a smooth, swift, one-day polling for a variety of reasons. Primarily, the state's administrative and security infrastructure would be stretched beyond limit: it cannot swallow the beast whole and must take it in five (not-very-easy) installments.

Security is a key word here. Indian elections are in any case host to their own endemic forms of violence - whether accompanied by gunpowder or executed with the sturdy Indian lathi, a six-foot wooden stick wielded with equal felicity by police and political goons. Add to this the current South Asian milieu, where ordinary lives seem to be under constant threat from the unknown backpacking gunman who dispenses his affections rather at random.

Thus, the dates and the geographical patterns of the actual voting - in as many as 800,000 polling booths across the country - have been carefully plotted to facilitate the movement of 877 companies of paramilitary forces and 2.1 million home guards, without whose surveillance the elections could not possibly take place. The five phases of the elections are spread between April 16 to May 16, the latter being the date on which we will (hopefully) know what sort of government will take India into the next decade.

As myriad regional political outfits coalesce into three national-level umbrella formations and vie for the votes of a rather diverse population with conflicting concerns, there may be no clear-cut verdict at the end of the show. But that hardly takes away from the popular excitement, the palpable frenzy elections generate.

In a sense, the very announcements of the dates - during which chief election commissioner N Gopalaswami could not help but brandish the mind-boggling numbers and logistics involved - comes as a tonic to the system.

For one, it temporarily pushes to the background depressing economic news, the global downturn, rising unemployment, retrenchments both locally and among the diaspora. These issues will return to prominence during the campaigns. But India's election, because of its sheer magnitude, is itself an economic event, releasing millions of rupees into the economy.

But it's not just the economy. As an irreducibly democratic exercise, it offers a countervailing positive force, the picture of a "politics that works" to a very disturbed neighborhood torn by terrorism, war and mutiny.

India's is an unfinished experiment in democracy: it's still in transit from the top-down model of government left behind by the British, trying to forge a more inclusive model while retaining its structures. The one device which helps invert the pyramid, at least notionally, is that one vote. Hence, all the romance around the one vote that tilts the balance, its very aura of privilege and power.
It's often asked whether the power to vote out a government balances out all the other kinds of disenfranchisement that exist. But in a land that sees an uncanny conjugation of extreme poverty and struggle for minimum wages on one side and Forbes A-listers and five-figure corporate salaries for young B-school grads on the other, the single vote is the ultimate social equalizer.
Amid all the staggering figures, the value and symbolism of the single vote was best exemplified by one polling station. It is being set up in a constituency called Una in Junagadh district, situated in one corner of the western Indian state of Gujarat. Located in a tiny village within the Gir forest - famous for its Asiatic lions - it will serve the cause of one voter. He is the only adult alive to vote.
It is, of course, the case that the two big political coalitions - the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) - are frequently accused of taking votes from the poor to make policies for the rich. In other words, that they tend to pursue the same neo-liberal economic goals that favor big business, often to the detriment of other core areas, including the distressed farm sector.

Yet, the power of that vote is real. It does not always express itself in an act of mere dissent or endorsement at the polling booth. Rather, it allows the voter - individually, or together with others - to enter into complex forms of transactions at the lower echelons of the political system, all of it based on an implied threat his or her vote carries.

And when the great Indian festival of elections comes along, it celebrates that very dispersal of power in the system. It's the ultimate theater of democracy, where the poor voter revels in the role-reversal and plays the king of destiny for the powerful. And its pomp and gaiety are legion. Apparently, London-based non-resident Indian travel agents are suddenly flooded with tourist enquiries: Destination Indian elections!

This election is bigger than anything that went before. There's been an increase of 43 million new voters from the last time elections were held, in 2004, during which time the size of the electorate was 671 million. Just to run the mammoth election machinery would require no less than 4 million civilians who would double up as polling officers, not to mention paramilitary troops deployed to make the exercise "free and fair". All the violence-prone constituencies have been clubbed together in the first phase of elections, just so that the trouble can be gotten over with fast.

However, more than the role of muscle, the money flow could be simply staggering. One could wonder how a distressed economy would generate so much cash. A recent survey by the Center for Media Studies pegs the estimated cost of the parliamentary elections at a staggering 10,000 crore rupees. That is almost US$2 billion. More than what Barack Obama and others spent in the US presidential race. The US Federal Election Commission statistics states that $1.8 billion was collectively spent by Obama and other candidates. But then, the US has only 210 million voters - less than one-third of India's electorate.

What is even more significant, this election will see a shift of focus from rural to urban India. The number of seats in urban centers has increased drastically after the fresh delimitation, a process of redrawing constituency boundaries based on the latest (2001) census data. With the progressive decline in agriculture, there had been a massive migration of population to the urban centers in recent years. This increased vote share is now getting reflected formally, a highly symbolic move away from the Gandhian (and Western) notion of an unchanging village India.

The doubling of urban voters is best understood in terms of the increase in the number of towns from 2,590 in 1971 to 5,161 in 2001. Also, there is now an average of 38 people in these urban areas for every 100 in the vast rural swathes, which is a 16% increase in relative vote share.

For instance, information technology hub Bangalore, capital of the southern state of Karnataka, will elect four representatives instead of three as in 2004. Similarly, Hyderabad, capital city of the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh, will be sending four members to parliament as against two. And Thane, a semi-urban district on the outskirts of Mumbai, will see an increase of three seats from the one it earlier had.

This changed demographic naturally has a political corollary. The main opposition party, the BJP, had its origins as an urban-centric party and it feels it has an edge over the ruling Congress in its old strongholds. It thus plans to keep the focus on middle-class issues (better roads, electricity and clean water) and a promise of reduction in home loan rates. Terrorism, internal security and foreign policy are also focal points for urban voters, and the Congress is better positioned than the BJP on these three issues.
The other big factor that will play itself out this election is the rise of the young Indian. The age group between 18 to 35 years will finally overshadow the older and grayer segment. This is reflected in the fact that the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family and Youth Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, though a relative rookie in politics, is drawing healthy crowds. Also, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, L K Advani (82), has been visiting gyms and pumping iron, besides having launched a campus blog to connect with the urban, college-going population.

Small wonder, for the 170 million young voters are an unpredictable entity and can swing the election in favor of either camp. Read this with the fact that the difference between the votes polled by the two big parties was a mere 4% in 2004. It is often said that the Congress did not win the 2004 elections, the BJP lost it. The former merely managed to cobble up a winning coalition that helped it run the government for the next five years.

Beyond this broad mapping, there are ever smaller grids. Relatively smaller, localized parties, circumscribed by caste and regional affiliations, will play a crucial role in this election: their importance can be gauged by the eagerness with which both the UPA and the NDA are forging new political alliances in an attempt to outsmart each other. It's going to be a long road for all until May 16.

Santwana Bhattacharya is a New Delhi-based journalist who writes on politics, parliament and elections. She currently working on a book on electoral reforms and the emergence of regional parties in India.