India does not need a strong Prime Minister, it needs a courageous and compassionate one

We are in the last lap of the general election, but the dust has not settled yet. It is quite impressive that so many ‘pundits’ have already announced the victor. This is in spite of the fact that we have been quite unsuccessful in predicting our Prime Ministers since independence. We have had to select Prime Ministers 14 odd times. At least on ten occasions the victor has been a surprise.

Undeterred, a host of columnists continue to write articles about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi trying to convince the readers that all will be well. After all, India is a big country, they say, and this will force Mr. Modi to not behave in accordance with the ideology of his party and core supporters. This is just one of the Orwellian techniques among many in favour this election season. If we believe in a fair and transparent parliamentary democratic process, then we should force politicians to stick to the ideologies and policies their parties and their ground forces represent when they assume power. By not doing so, they subvert democracy by fooling their voters in the election campaign.

The unaesthetic and real

The democratic process has also been subverted by turning this into a Presidential campaign without detailed party manifestoes to support what the candidates stand for. The manifestoes should have been announced months in advance so that we could have challenged the local contenders on details, and their approach toward local and national problem-solving. However, this option is being denied to the voters as they have been asked to vote for the party of a national leader, irrespective of the merits of the local contender. If the voters take this advice seriously, we are sure to end up with an inefficient government.

This election is also the most unaesthetic (what with caps and masks) and superficial one we have seen for some time. The issues that really demand attention are provision of equal and free education and health care to all, protection of the environment, justice for minorities and disempowered groups, and taxation reforms to rebuild society. In a society where one-fourth of the country is out of government control, where three-fourths of the population do not have access to reasonable health care and education, where deforestation and pollution of air and water continue at unprecedented levels, where minority groups cannot rent a home of their choice, or get a job easily in the private sector, it is amazing that we have turned this election into a referendum on an undefined model of ‘development.’

We are told that this election is different because the ‘youth’ in India has turned away from caste and communal issues and only want ‘development.’ The establishment is celebrating the influence of this demographic dividend. I am always suspicious when the establishment starts praising the concerns of the young. In all societies the establishment is always suspicious and even antagonistic to youth movements. Obviously, the ‘youth’ being praised here must be a special subgroup — they are those that represent the majoritarian worldview of unhindered moneymaking, whereas those who can’t get an education, jobs or a place to live in, those who feel that their identities are under threat, or those whose lives are made miserable on account of gender discrimination don’t count. Lobbying for these groups amounts to pandering to vote banks. We must remember that Barack Obama could have never been elected if he had not ‘pandered’ to specific vote banks.

Lack of debate on sensitive issues

The lack of debate on serious and sensitive issues underscores the fact that it has become much more difficult to discuss these issues in our society today. The indiscriminate banning of books, films, artwork and plays, disruption of public meetings, and moral policing has spread an undercurrent of fear all across the country. It is much more difficult today to organise a discussion on a sensitive topic in our institutions than it was over a decade ago. There is a great deal of self-censorship going on. For this to change direction, civil society organisations will need the support of politicians with courage. In this election campaign we have not seen any signs of this happening yet. Any time an individual has raised an unpopular issue the party concerned has disowned it.

It is quite obvious that whatever the outcome of these elections, it will not bring much peace and progress to our society. After all, there is no evidence from anywhere in the world that we are very good at selecting our representatives. We are better at throwing them out. There is no reason why we should be able to make the right choice with such little information and choice.

However, this is the only system we have for the time being and we have to live with its consequences for some time. Hopefully, not for too long. This election has taught us that we as a society have to forefront some serious issues and not get caught up in vacuous debates concerning Foreign Direct Investment and labour reform. Nor do we want to be deluded by technological fixes such as interlinking of rivers and bullet trains. Even if these issues are important, they cannot be achieved efficiently or provide the progress we are looking for unless there are large numbers of people who can discuss these issues more intelligently. For example, you cannot have labour reform unless you have a safety net for unemployed persons so that their children stay in school and the family gets affordable health care. There are far too many human beings within the boundaries of our nation state who are deeply dissatisfied with their lot in life. Justice and fair play has to be felt and seen by all of them. Another Walmart will not do the job.

It is possible that some of these young people may have seen through this campaign and we might be in for a surprise. In any case we don’t need a strong Prime Minister, we need a courageous and compassionate one.

(Dinesh Mohan is the Volvo Chair Professor Emeritus, Transport Research and Injury Prevention Programme, WHO Collaborating Centre, IIT Delhi.)

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