What did half a billion Indians vote for?

Facts and Figures

When India votes, it votes big and it votes long. The world's largest democracy conducts its electoral exercise once in every 5 years, which is when the outgoing government serves its full tenure. The latest general elections were held to elect the 15th Lok Sabha (lower house of the parliament), since the 1st Lok Sabha constituted in 1952. The one month long parliamentary elections for 543 constituencies, spread across the length and breadth of the country, were held in five different phases that started on 16th of April and ended on 13th of May, 2009. While there were approximately 715 million eligible voters, only 415 million of them have actually exercised their franchise, which amounts to a turnout of 58% of the total electorate. 1.3 million Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) were used in a total of 828,000 polling stations across the country. The Election Commission of India deserves much of the credit and every bit of respect, for its commendable job in conducting a monumental task with such a smooth and fair process.

Fair electoral process! Yes, but is it a fair electoral system? Does the electorate get a fair representation in the parliament? Do the elected representatives actually reflect the voices of their electorate? These are important questions that should interest every concerned voter, especially when some representatives get elected with just 10% of the total votes polled in their favour. Bhola Singh, who won the Nawada constituency in Bihar, represents a population of 2.5 million, out of which 1.4 million of them are eligible voters. Singh won by polling just 130,000 votes in favour of him, or less than 10% of the electorate. Bhola Singh now represents 2.5 million people of which only 5% of them have actually opted for him. Perhaps this is an extreme case, but trends show that the electoral system favours this kind of disturbing process. As many as 145 of the 543 Members of Parliament (MPs) got elected with less than 20% of their electorate voting for them. Compared to these, just 5 of the 543 MPs — the ones representing Nagaland, Sikkim, the two Tripura seats and Tamluk in West Bengal — got the votes of a majority of their respective electorates. Overall, the average MP in the 15th Lok Sabha got the votes of barely a quarter of his or her electorate. How representative is the current ruling party, Congress, which has secured only 28% of the total electorate?

Imagine this, when all the MPs have been elected with 30% votes, and are supposed to pass a crucial bill in the parliament. Now, for a bill to be passed in the Lok Sabha and become a law requires 50% of the MPs voting for it. That means 15% of the people's mandate (50% of 30%). So without 85% of the mandate of the people, the lawmakers can thrust a law on them. Now we know why so many laws in the country are followed in breach.

National parties versus Regional parties

India is a parliamentary democracy with a multi-party political system. There are valid reasons for this country to have a multi-party political system rather than a two-party system. With its conglomeration of different religions, subcultures, communities, languages etc., India is bound to have people composed of various interest groups, thereby promoting the politics of local interests. 

What does a multi-party system advocate? What exactly does a party stand for, and what compels a group of people to start a political party? In a country as diverse as India, two-party system would just not work. A party comes into existence when the concerns of a particular group, or community of people, are neglected by successive governments. When people feel that their yells are not being heard in the background of the shrill noises of opportunistic ruling class, or not listened by the policy makers inside the parliament, then those aggrieved people take the initiative to form into a coherent voice that can knock the doors of the parliament to have their say.

Indian National Congress, the Grand Old Party of India, has been the sole national party with its nation wide representation, until the emergence of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a formidable opposition in the late 1990s. Though communists are having pockets of power in some parts of the country, they were never able to challenge the authority of Congress in national politics. From its early avatar as Bhartiya Jana Sangh since 1951, the current BJP was formed in the early 1980s after the turbulent events of post-emergency period (1977-1980). However, BJP never really had any national agenda except for its Hindu-nationalist dimension. Ironically, BJP's emergence as a political force had come from its violent demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992, and finally formed a government in 1998.

Though BJP claims its role as the alternative national party to that of Congress, it could not form a government on its own. It had to cobble up a 24-party National Democratic Alliance (NDA), with most of the small regional parties supporting this non-Congress alternative (from 1998 to 2004). That was the starting point of real coalition era in Indian politics. Congress, which was adamant to be single and not mingle until then, changed its stance on the eve of 2004 general elections. Sonia Gandhi, the president of Congress, understood the winds of change in Indian polity and opted for a coalition of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to fight against the formidable NDA during 2004 elections. It is a different story that UPA came to power, sending all the psephologists into cover. The congress party was smart enough to do its homework, and UPA has repeated the act once again in 2009, this time with much better showing.

The last few general elections, dating back since 1989, have given ample indications that the parties, either regional or national, are bound to cobble up pre-poll or post-poll alliances in order to form a government. Despite the two major parties taking the lead to form agenda based coalitions, the fact remains that these alliances are always vulnerable to the whims and pulls of various regional parties. No wonder then, that the 2009 elections saw a whooping number of 364 parties in the fray, contesting for the total of 543 seats.

In the context of parliamentary elections, the Indian situation can be compared to that of the European parliament. Both the regions, in their own ways, are conglomerations of different peoples with different traditions but emanating from common cultural roots. One could be tempted to ask if there would a possibility of European parliamentary elections to be fought under a two-party system.  Take the case of Italy; out of all the European democracies, Italy can be considered as the one country that is more inclined towards a common religious (Catholic) faith. If this country, with predominantly catholic society that shares a common religion, culture and traditions, could not succeed in clubbing up a two party system, then how in the world can one expect India to succeed with a two party system? With a cocktail mix of its multiple parties, remember that Italy has had 64 governments in the past 65 years, and still continuing with the same system.

Political deadlocks and socio-economic turbulences

Since the early days of coalition politics two decades ago, Indian polity has shown signs of maturity over the years. Much credit should go to the National Democratic Alliance experiment, which was formed under the able leadership of Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee. That ultimately influenced the congress leadership to follow suit by shedding its inhibitions, and opting for the United Progressive Alliance. From then on, the main fight was revolving around these two alliances led by the two major parties. There were couple of other short-lived alliances that tried to influence the Congress and BJP led alliances, but did not make any significant dent to the overall outcome.

Being a vast agrarian economy the majority of Indians are still embraced with the rural sector. However, the agricultural sector is totally exempted from taxation, which means no farmer is bothered to pay any income tax even if his (individual/family) income is worth millions. Therefore the government has to deal with a fine mix of delicate policies that generate money for the state for important developmental projects, and to nudge the country towards economic prosperity. Congress led UPA has done its homework well to grab the power for the second time. Its policies during the previous term, sandwiched between the market based economy and the rural agricultural sector, have delivered enough dividends to the party to claim for another term.

BJP on the other hand is suffering with an identity crisis. Going to the electorate with the main agenda of Hindutva, along with some petty issues that are not relevant in the minds of voters across the country, BJP had basically exposed its lack of competence to come to terms with the issues that concerned the electorate. It won only one seat in four big states that together account for 143 out of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha — West Bengal (42), Andhra Pradesh (42), Tamil Nadu (39) and Kerala (20). The Congress' tally in these states is 60 seats.

One can see only two possibilities for the BJP to bounce back in 2014. Either the congress led UPA falters to live up to the expectations and does a miserable job during the next 5 years, or, BJP acts as a constructive opposition party raising some real important issues of national importance, along with offering an unconditional apology for its misgivings during 2002 Gujarat riots. As long as BJP does not come out of its identity as a Hindu nationalist party, by reaching out to the common man with a real developmental agenda, the party will continue to be a spent force.

Lessons learnt, and to be learned

Ideally, a government should take care of its people's needs and make sure that the society, on the whole, is spending its best resources (thought, time) on creativity rather than continuity. If the government does its job to perfection then the people can put their creative ability to best use without wasting much time for bickering with the establishment. One can notice this in many developed nations, where politics across the spectrum are cohesive when it comes to policies that are aimed at the well being of its citizens.

Take the case of America; it is one of those countries that allow its citizens to put their creative power to best use. Why, because they have that room for freedom of thought provided by their governmental policies, so the people's creative abilities are channelized towards productivity. Now, how America is acquiring its material resources (economically, politically, militarily) to keep its citizens satisfied, is another matter that is beyond the scope of this article. Successive Indian governments failed to provide even the basic amenities to majority of its citizens. So how can one expect to leave the state of affairs to the corrupt practices in the establishment and concentrate ones mental space on free thoughts and creativity?

Apart from few exceptions, people in India have been spending their lives in cramped up mental space, which is the result of a combination of socio-cultural and politico-economic factors. Until and unless the political establishments design governmental policies that provide adequate time and space for its people, to stay away from the grappling issues of corruption and political pollution, in order to concentrate on finding solutions for the problems in both science and society, the nation as a whole can at best move like a snail rather than a hare.

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