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May 30, 2019

Some lessons in democracy


May 30, 2019

The gigantic democratic exercise conducted in India in seven phases as its latest exercise in election was completed did not perhaps throw up the results many of us would have liked to see.

Sadly, the nationalist message of Narendra Modi and his BJP essentially brought to an end the secularist and pluralist message of the Indian National Congress. Founded in 1885 by Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, the INC faded a little further into the distance.

Shining India has taken on an unexpected colour. Saffron dominates the country as it moves into a new era. Looking beyond the outcome of that election and what this means for India as a country of 1.3 billion people and the region as a whole are the lessons we can learn from the election in itself.

There are multiple things that emerge from it. We should ask ourselves how many defeated leaders in our country have publicly delivered a speech and conceded defeat even before the result was finalised, as Rahul Gandhi did. He and many other Indian leaders also congratulated Narendra Modi both over the mainstream and social media, even if we can discern their greetings were perhaps not heartfelt. But in the elaborate game of electoral politics, it is gestures and grace that matters, and this grace was visible as the BJP notched up another sweeping victory.

This in itself testifies to the maturity of the Indian democracy in place since the early 1950s with scarcely any disruption. The generally orderly casting of millions of votes across a wide, scattered country, with Electronic Voter Machines carried into remote hamlets sometimes on the backs of mules also made it apparent how committed India is to its democracy and to the conduct of polls. Analysts have suggested the actual process was more efficiently held than would have been possible in the United States, which has had its share of election-time wobbles, with the dimple chads and hanging chads of Florida in 2000 coming to mind as well as the gerrymandering seen since and before then in the distribution of districts within caucuses.

Of course, there are structural issues inherent in India’s winner-take-all parliamentary system as well. This is true for all British-style democracies. But that is a somewhat more abstract issue. India’s citizens of today have grown up as voters and the turn out by 67 percent marks a lasting interest in government – even though it has delivered to them little over the decades in terms of quality of life or economic progress. It has however given them confidence as citizens and the powerful knowledge that they have a stake in their country and a role to play in decisions regarding its future.

This time, as happened in 2014, they once again chose to hand it over to a hardcore nationalist force. But this again is their choice. It has to be respected even if we do not like it, just as the votes for Trump in the US have to be accepted even though they leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth. It is also commendable that only 300,000 votes out of the nearly 700 million cast were cancelled. This compares to over five times that number, according to available statistics, out of the 40 million cast in Pakistan.

This is partially a testimony to the dependability of the indigenously built EVMs, first used in India in 1982 and gradually expanded to cover all polling stations. The simply designed machines have obviously been adopted by Indian voters, even if occasional accusations surface of the machines being rigged or of malfunction. Such objections are however limited.

The fallibility of paper votes, the greater chance that errors will be made by voters and also the lack of experience of Pakistani voters offers lessons of its own. Perhaps it is time, as we continue our precarious waltz with democracy, to turn to similar technology and by doing so eradicate the many insinuations that the voting process is tampered with or engineered in our constituencies. Such uncertainties only add to concerns over the viability of democracy. Essential to it is the need to ensure there can be no intervention in the choices made by people.

In our own recent political narrative, there has been a great deal of discussion on the return of the same players to government over and over again and of corruption, nepotism and elitism. This discussion continues today. It is significant that change did come in India, even if this happened after a period of decades rather than years. The Indian National Congress had led the government in New Delhi all but four times until 2014, when it was reduced to an unimaginable 40 seats. This time, it has won 52 seats. This means it does not even have the minimum number needed to lead the opposition.

Essentially, the people of India have thrown out traditional leaders, best personified by Rahul Gandhi, who was defeated in his family’s ancestral seat of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. This is much like Bilawal Bhutto losing from Larkana. The defeat of Rahul could end a party structure built on nepotism and retaining power within the Nehru-Gandhi family tree. Rahul Gandhi’s great-grandfather, grandmother, father, uncle, mother and sister have all monopolised powerful political positions within the Congress since before Partition. The genuinely liberal and now mildly left-leaning party is also elitist.

While Modi has gone out of his way to present himself as a candidate from a lower-income background and is a man who doesn’t speak too much English, Rahul Gandhi is a product of India’s most elite schools followed by Harvard and Cambridge. There can be few bigger contrasts. This then, as painted by Modi, is the victory of a hardworking former tea vendor over a member of India’s most privileged class.

We have yet to see similar battles taking place at home. But the questions of hierarchy, monopoly, corruption and elitism haunt us as they do India. The Indian electorate demonstrated that it possessed the capacity and the will to remove from power those who had dominated it for so long when they chose to do so.

It is perfectly possible the same could happen in Pakistan, provided that democracy is allowed to learn from its own mistakes and be related over and over again over a prolonged period of time so that the process of self-correction and adjustment can take place without other complications.

We have of course always drawn parallels between our politics and those of India. The Gandhis and the Bhuttos have been compared to each other relentlessly. Their tragic dynasties of course have many similarities. But the electoral playing fields they venture out onto are significantly different. In this too, there are messages we can absorb, consider and understand. When the time comes, people, whether literate or illiterate, whether villagers or members of the urban elite, choose according to what they see as best for themselves and their country.

India has made its choice for the next five years. Pakistan did too last year. We hope this can continue indefinitely into the future as Pakistan’s own democracy achieves greater durability and greater strength.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]