‘All layers of Indian society are engaged in the 2014 elections’

Indian women wait for a boat as the entire country waits the outcome of the elections

Indian women wait for a boat. The entire country is now waiting the outcome of the 2014 general election. Voting continues until 12 May. Photo by Aditya Ghosh

‘All layers of Indian society are engaged in the 2014 elections’

22/04/14

By Aditya Ghosh

It’s the biggest event on earth, literally, with a several hundred million people involved to organise the fate of another 1.25 billion, the event costing about £350 million to the Indian exchequer alone. This is a 150 per cent jump in the cost of holding a general election in India from the last election five years ago. And this expense does not even include the cost of the election machinery and campaigns installed by individual political parties, which would easily take the figure to £1 billion.

But none of that, not even the geopolitics linked to India’s general election, make this 2014 event a unique one. Instead, the current Indian elections are turning out to be unique on two counts. Firstly, they are an election of participation in which everyone is desperate to make their voice heard, both rich and poor; secondly there is an unnerving ‘unpredictability’ in terms of what will happen. The pundits, columnists and psephologists are out in force speculating who will win but no one is quite sure what to expect.

Oblivious to the rest of the world who are watching these elections with much anticipation (with some tourists so fascinated they are even travelling to India on what is now termed as poll tourism!), all sections of Indian society, from the slumdwellers to the wealthy, seem frenzied, zealous and obsessed about taking control of their collective futures in their own hands. What a triumph for democracy!

None of the previous elections since Independence have had so many variables at play. None of them have attracted attention from such a wide range of people in society – right from Indian-origin scholars working in premier academic institutions around the globe, to Indian software engineers, doctors and professors living in India to the sweepers, maids, vegetable vendors, daily wage labourers and the common man sleeping on the streets in India, just as much the torch-bearers of democracy.

As summer heat reaches 40° C in most parts of India, dusty roads see political processions one after the other, news photographers scurry around for the best angles, the police despondently try to maintain the order of law; the madness in India finds its own method.

Before the election started, an intellectual, ideological battle was waged between two economists of the highest pecking order. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, a Harvard University professor, could not have timed the release of his book An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions (2013), co-authored with Jean Drèze, better. It narrates in detail the need for social reform in India, the underdevelopment of infrastructure, how the needs of the poor have been disregarded and the failure of the ‘growth and trickle-down model’.

The book elicited equal amounts of criticism and praise. The former came from Jagdish Bhagwati, University Professor (Economics, Law, and International Affairs) at Columbia University in New York, who ‘tore Sen apart’, alleging he was motivated solely by an allegiance with the current Congress-led UPA government. Bhagwati openly vouched support for the trickle-down economic growth model advocated by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), who is likely to become India’s next prime minister if his party manages a majority in the lower house of parliament.

This was perhaps the first row in Indian politics, in which the battle lines were drawn by academics of international repute, rather than by Indian politicians or party workers. Suave and non-confrontational in his demeanour, Sen, who divides his time between the USA and India, attended endless media conferences, interviews and talk-shows where he tried to reason why improving social capital was important to fuel development and growth in a sustainable, just and long term manner while USA-based Bhagwati, over Skype and video conferences, dismissed him.

He and fellow Columbia University professor Arvind Panagariya penned several articles in the press in their attempts to denigrate Sen and Drèze.

The Indian media marketed the entire showdown as a tussle between Congress and its development economics model (bolstered by the Food Security Act and the Right to Education Act) and the BJP and its Gujarat model of development that boasts high industrial production and an inviting environment for corporations (both national and global) to set shop in the state, advocating a trickle-down model where the fruits of capitalist growth eventually trickle down to the poor.

The debate engaged a large number of intelligentsia in the Indian diaspora as well as Indian journalists who worked harder to sift through data to support one side or the other. Meanwhile readers commented on articles and blog posts; social media was abuzz with comments as a connection between academics, research and politics took hold.

The debate divided educated Indians  into two camps: the growth proponents and those supporting the welfare agenda, who locked horns over their opposing ideas of the direction India should take. The former camp (which, incidentally, is large enough to determine the election outcome), is mainly comprised of Indians frustrated with India’s modest growth rates who now vouch their allegiance to the markets and to Modi to catapult the country into high growth with Modi slogans such as ‘less government, more governance.’ They see nothing short of an industrial revolution as a panacea to India’s problems.

The latter camp is still recovering from the 2002 Gujarat massacre and trying to uphold a more socialist approach than just leaving it up to the capitalist system to turn the wheels of fortune for India. But they express their strong dislike for Modi without really holding up much alternative.

What is promising though is that the debate of which party should govern India has for the first time at these elections moved out of the narrow sphere of the academia, intelligentsia and the educated masses to the Indian common man, who has historically been disillusioned with what was on offer.

Until now, there have been no lesser evils for this large, fatalistic mass of Indians to choose from. All they really want is simple good governance – that ensures efficient and hassle-free delivery of their daily needs –access to water, sanitation, roads, health and education. They seek a reprieve from the stifling corruption that has laid down a feudal structure in the country. But till recently no one had ever stood for this. Or at least, until Indian social activist Anna Hazare appeared on the scene in 2011 declaring a fast-unto-death in demand of anti-corruption laws. The pinnacle for the uneducated masses has now finally arrived at the 2014 elections, sparked by the success of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) in the New Delhi State Assembly elections in December 2013.

The success of AAP has been to return a faith in democracy among the millions of auto-rickshaw drivers, cleaners, maids, and all the people on the fringes and margins of Indian society. Out of the blue they feel like they have the ability to alter the feudal status quo that till now had seemed out of reach.  Suddenly slum dwellers, impoverished daily wage labourers, farmers and maids are all talking politics — connecting finally with the debate that Sen started last year.

Yet there is a new twist in the elections this time round as well. Separate to the ideological struggle and the increase in the common man’s interest and pride in suffrage, has been the rise of regional sentiments which this time seem to hold the key as to who will win. Backed by no particular ideology but a sense of power at being the king makers who could hold political parties to ransom, political power today is flowing from the regions to the Centre instead of the reverse, making this election in so many ways nothing but a true celebration of democracy.

No matter who the poor, middle-classes or the elite support, for the first time in India’s history since Independence, the bottom, the middle and the top layers of Indian society are linked in their embrace of democracy. A peep into the social media (carefully avoiding the  ‘paid’ campaigns there) demonstrates this engagement, this desire to participate, something that was buried under fatalism or a sense of fait accompli for most till now. Irrespective of what outcome India may have after the elections end on May 12, the sheer scale and level of participation this time makes it a fascinating experience to follow where nothing can be taken for granted any more!

Aditya Ghosh works at the South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, Germany, as a Research Associate after having worked for 12 years as a full-time journalist, editor and researcher with organisations such as Hindustan Times, The Times of India (two of India’s and the world’s largest English language newspapers) and the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, India’s premier think tank. He writes regularly in Reuters Alert Net. His research is focused on developing an alternative development paradigm that internalises environmental conflicts and shifts caused by climate change and global warming.  

 

Asia House is carrying a series of exclusive stories and opinion pieces on the Indian general election 2014 until the election count on 16 May. To read them all click here.

To read an analysis of India’s main opposition BJP  prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi written by executive editor of  Delhi’s broadsheet newspaper Millennium Post Daipayan Halder click here.

To read the views of celebrated author and journalist Mark Tully, former BBC Delhi Bureau Chief, on the main contenders in the Indian general election, click here.