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India’s election discourse disappoints: Confessions of a Voter

As I got my finger inked on April 30th in what is termed as the greatest celebration of democracy, I reflected upon the nature of the political discourse amidst mind-boggling campaigning that has been on for months together. As a voter, one is left completely disillusioned with the kind of discourse that dominated India’s general elections. Two defining characteristics were – the overdose of a ‘secular vs communal’ frame and the highly irresponsible and outrageous statements dished by political contenders across party lines. Is this what people of the world’s largest democracy should expect from their political class? If this were to continue (and this is more than likely) to where is our democratic discourse headed?

Surprising enough that even after six decades of independence, the election discourse continues to digress from people’s issues and in fact has turned out to be more regressive than ever before. To say that the nature of the current discourse is rhetorical and vitriolic will not amount to exaggeration. Unfortunately, aside all the big expectations of “acche din aane wale hain”; our political class has actually reduced elections to a mere verbal duel where all you do is outwit the other until the next sound byte/TV appearance. With each passing day as the elections unfold – a new allegation, a new set of outlandish statements and a new controversy emerge – enough to deflect attention from grave issues that the country faces. Certainly no election seems like one if the basic issues of ‘bijli’ (electricity), ‘sadak’ (roads), ‘paani’ (water) are not addressed. In fact, these promises continue to hang around every time; leaving the discourse insipid and utterly lacking in fresh ideas. Apart from these usual ones, there is the secular vs communal debate which has become the pulse of this election. Surely, democracy can offer more than those usual promises and refrain from a bout of mudslinging politics. The election discourse this time around is not about people’s expectations; it’s what the political class wants them to talk about. Although allegations, character assassination, slander are routinely a part of election debates; but the denigration of debate that this election has witnessed leaves one amazed.
If democracy is about freedom and rights, then it equally embodies ‘tolerance’ and ‘responsiveness’. By these yardsticks candidates have already failed the democratic test. Sample these statements made by prominent leaders/candidates:

“Critics of BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi should be sent to Pakistan” – Giriraj Singh, Bhartiya Janta Party.

"Vote for the clock (NCP symbol) there (in Satara) and come back to vote for the clock here as well." – NCP Chief Sharad Pawar asking his party workers to take advantage of the multi-phase polling in the state by voting twice.

“Muslims, not Hindus, won Kargil for India” – Azam Khan of the Samajwadi party.

“BJP engages in zeher ki kheti” – Congress President Sonia Gandhi.

"Narendra Modi can never become the Prime Minister of India; however if he wants to sell tea we can arrange a place for him at the AICC here" - Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyer. 

While these and many other such statements are reflective of the degeneration of political debate, they are also indicative of the hyperbole that Indian politicians are indulging in this time around. So we have rounds of taking a dig at each other resulting into a new vocabulary for Indian politics – ‘jijaji model’ (referring to Robert Vadra), ‘chai wala’ and ‘butcher’ (referring to Narendra Modi), ‘helicopter democracy’ (as coined by Arvind Kejriwal) to name a few (India’s Politicians Trash-Talk Their Rivals, The Wall Street Journal – April 29). While there have been terms such as ‘khooni panja’ and ‘maut ka saudagar’ used in earlier electoral references, the ‘tamasha’ is more evident now that elections are more about the latest campaigning trends and “who said what to whom”. Such a jarring campaign has not let voters be calm and reflective about the quality of our democratic discourse as there remains complete possibility of getting carried away by the hype and hoopla generated by political gimmickry and the PR machinery at full play.
While there are the positives about voter awareness campaigns, surge in voter percentages and increased political participation, where is the articulation on policy matters; conspicuous by its absence in both political and media discourse? Surely, a vast country like India is bothered about issues beyond corruption and communalism. It is worried about employment, poverty, education, energy, health, technology, economy etc. While every political party claims to talk of development and keep their policy visions restricted to manifestos, all we see in the public domain are personalized attacks and a personality centric election discourse – quite opposed to being people centric. All this election offers us is ‘dichotomous choices’ – a discourse that is seeped into ‘binaries’ which signify that “I do not care whether I am good, but the ‘other’ is bad’. This is an unhealthy trend for a democracy.

I do not see anything wrong in debating “who will win” and “how” but isn’t it more important to deliberate what that win should mean for the future course that the country has to undertake. Should we allow ourselves to be fooled by these petty issues and still believe in the festive spirit of democracy? Are we out there to enjoy or hold our political representatives responsible for their utter insensitive speak? Since, the discourse has stooped to abysmally low levels, how much faith can the already disillusioned voter retain? To one’s total amazement the Election Commission (the body responsible for conducting and monitoring India’s elections) stands mute with power only to reprimand, ban and the revoke the same ban on candidates who flout every model code of conduct laid down by the EC. This does not send a serious message to candidates offending the sensibilities of voters by their irresponsible conduct.

I for once was under the illusion that the present elections are more about people than power. But the election discourse proved it wrong. When candidates reek of non-accountability and brazenness even before elections, certainly the post-election scenario does not look hopeful. Whoever says that this is a watershed election for India, should look at the election discourse- for what it conveys is quite the opposite. Seems we have missed the bus again!


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