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Saturday, May 8, 2004

The miasma of elections has enveloped us. In ordinary conversations or talk shows on the TV, the discussions invariably veer around to elections. Indian democracy continues to baffle many. A country with a predominantly illiterate population is going to polls in an electronic format, and about 725,000 indigenous electronic voting machines are in place. And yet we find it difficult to enumerate voters properly! We are all well aware that it’s a Herculean task to get even a small information in a government office, and yet the details pertaining to assets, liabilities, and educational qualifications of all candidates contesting elections are available on the internet! These paradoxes are baffling. The diversity of this nation was also reflected in the speeches of the political party leaders. Some made profound observations, while others were mundane. Some made vitriolic attack on their opponents and some were surprisingly balanced. The exit polls have added spice to the whole exercise. For an outsider the paradoxes of Indian democracy are difficult to comprehend. No wonder international news agencies have termed Indian elections as  “colourful, confusing, and a passionate exercise”.

There is more to an election than mere exit polls, opinion polls and stars from tinsel world campaigning for parties. Elections are about exercising choice –  choice not merely about which party should govern, but also about prioritizing the various options that are available for the well-being of the society. But often such prioritization takes a back seat as emotions play a predominant role or the concerns/issues that matter to the people do not come on to the center stage.

Many issues have come to the forefront during the current elections –  foreign origin, free power and secularism, to name a few. An important issue that did not assume much importance was the question of continued and growing inequality in India. This inequality manifests itself in social and economic realms. In the economic realm there is growing inequality between regions and between different sections of population. While the old license-permit-quota raj is being dismantled for good, the emergent market economy is not particularly helpful in reducing disparities. People who are equipped to participate in the global market have benefited immensely while the groups who have not acquired the requisite skills or understanding of the market have been left behind. It is precisely for this reason that today we have conflicting slogans – “India Shining” and “Bharat Not Shining”. Both slogans capture parts of the same reality. While some segments of populations of the urban India have benefited from market economy and globalization, the vast stretches of rural India, often referred to as Bharat, are yet to experience the benefits of modernization. The growing demand for smaller states and alleged discrimination of certain regions in this country is a manifestation of these inequalities. In the social realm, inequality is a consequence of caste and gender discriminations. All the parties have reiterated their commitment to greater representation of women in legislatures. But there is no tangible action. Further, the strategies to alter the socio-economic profile of women were not debated. The necessity for structural change or dismantling the central logic of caste system or the strategies that are necessary to ensure equal opportunities for all sections did not dominate election debates. Education, health care and rule of law –  the three essential ingredients in a just  society creating opportunities for vertical mobility – have not been the main themes of any elections in India so far. The continued inequalities will only result in discord and strife, which is neither good for our democracy nor for the growth of our economy.

Only a strong and vibrant state can address these challenges. We need institutions which will breathe life into legislations and scrupulously implement policies. However, the state apparatus is plagued by unaccountability and inefficiency. Tragically, all the parties have failed to clearly specify steps that they would take to revitalize the bureaucratic leviathan.  Most promises therefore will be unkept. Anti-incumbency is not merely a consequence of lack of will to deliver basic services to the poor and needy. It is largely a consequence of the inability to translate ideas into action due to institutional degeneration. The need of the hour therefore is to revitalize our State and its institutions.

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