The Indian Democracy

Just as our April 2008 poll verdict, this Indian election, it appears, was about stability and progress of India

By Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal Here is the PDF version of the page.]

Indian naitonal congress party victory
A kid, carrying the Indian National Congress Party flag, walks on the street in front of the Congress headquarters in New Delhi on the day of the counting of votes of the month-long parliamentary elections. Congress emerged as the single largest party with more seats than it got in 2004 polls. Pic by Zakaria Zainal

One thing that provides India with the world’s, particularly the West’s, trust and respect is its virtually stable and reasonably functioning democracy. Like in Nepal, votes can still be bought by a glass of drink in many parts of India and millions don’t cast their vote but vote their caste. And many don’t even care about the democratic process. They ask a brutally simple question: “How does it matter to me who wins or loses?” Therein lies a challenge to all democracies all over the globe: indeed, how to attract people to the decision-making process and make it more inclusive? But still democracy in India is a matchless outlet for people to vent their anger, dissatisfaction, frustration and, at the same time, express their desires, aspirations and dreams.

This past week, as India (re)elected its Prime Minister and a new parliament through the world’s largest participatory democratic process, the rest of the world, from Kathmandu to Washington DC watched in awe. This is where the real power of India lies: the capacity to hold mammoth polls successfully in such a diverse and paradoxical environment. As someone pointed out in a recent column here in Delhi, it’s not one election that India holds at a time. It is as many as number of constituencies — each of them with hundreds of thousands of voters — that send representatives to the parliament.

This praise of India must be capped right here. India can’t ‘export’ and ‘spread’ or ‘strengthen’ democracy in the neighborhood which many in the Indian intelligentsia aspire and desire publicly. But as long as the Indian citizenry feels powerful enough to make or break their own governments for their own interests and progress, we, their neighbors, are happy and content for them.

The combined wisdom of people can rarely be wrong. Just as our April 2008 poll verdict was for peaceful transition of the country, this Indian election, it appears, was about stability and progress of India. The majority of the voters wanted to see a stable government free from the clusters of incompatible political ideologies. The Indian voters wanted the dam of development activities to be opened so that, as one ‘Democracy Video’ posted in YouTube suggests in a different context, their empty glasses could be filled with clean drinking water.

The video I am talking about is an entry from India to the Democracy Video Challenge, a worldwide competition organized by the American State Department in which participants explain the meaning of democracy with cameras in three or less minutes. A vote casted in the village election can travel all the way up to the national parliament (via district administration and state assemblies) and shake the natural resource ministry to open the dam from where the water comes to the voter’s empty glass. “Democracy is,” the video maker says, “when power is at your fingertips.”

(The entry from Nepal by Tsering Choden, which has, like the Indian creation, made it to the final list of 21 videos from ‘over 900 contestants from 95 countries’, is no less interesting. In fact, it presents the concept of democracy in a more colourful way, the same very way we have been experiencing and practicing it in Nepal. Videos can be watched and voted to victory until 15 June at http://videochallenge.america.gov/)

So this time the power vested in Indian fingertips shockingly pushed aside the communists and some regional groups and gave the Congress party a thumping victory which, in more ways than one, appears to have paved the way for reform in India. (Man Mohan Singh, even after a full five year term as the prime minister, is still remembered more as the finance minister of the early 90s who started economic reform in India.) A very famous personality in India who is largely associated with the ruins of one of the most backward states of this country saw his party almost wiped out in the polls. I haven’t found anyone in Delhi so far from Bihar who like what Lalu Yadav did there. Everyone, in my interactions, praise Nitish Kumar who has been credited with turning around the state of Bihar in the past couple of years as the chief minister. No wonder, his party swept the parliament seats in Bihar while Lalu’s licked the dust. That’s how fingertips punish the culprits. Now Lalu is nowhere: kicked out of the central governing alliance, he has lost his political significance.

But the manner in which Lalu, the communists and many others who lost the election accepted the verdict shows the greatness of Indian democracy yet again. The elections, partly thanks to the electronic voting machines, were largely fair and the incidents of violence, which occurred mainly in the first of the five phases, weren’t powerful enough to hijack and threaten the integrity of the process. So no one here is complaining about rigging or other electoral malpractice. Everyone, including the ‘gang-lord’ politician Pappu Yadav, Lalu’s former ally, whose wife and mother lost from Bihar constituencies, seems to have accepted the people’s verdict gracefully. No one, like our Maoist comrades in Nepal, threatened to resort to violence if they were not voted to power. Not even Pappu. Fear psychology has, one can argue, very limited space in Indian democracy. And democracy in India has tamed the wildest of the wild leaders.

That, however, doesn’t mean Indian democracy is free from tough bargains for political appointments and cabinet berths. Intra-party competition to bring down colleagues and secure a certain cabinet post, sulking coalition partners trying to milk as many government positions as possible and threats to ‘support from outside’ if demands are not met are reality. India was experiencing all this and more as it was preparing to swear in a new cabinet Friday. Nothing of this is new to the Nepali people, however, given our own experience of such things: one only needs to recall how annoyingly long it took us to form a new government this week.

But then democracy — despite uncountable differences — is all about working together. Some win and some lose; some voices are heard while others are respectfully ignored by the majority. That’s democracy.

[This article first appeared in today’s Op-Ed of The Kathmandu Post. Here is the PDF version of the page.]

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