Comment

The aftermath of a nasty election

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The time has come for civil society to forge corrective action and strengthen institutions

The devastation caused by a vicious electoral campaign for the 17th Lok Sabha has cast a troublesome shadow on India’s future. Citizens who have witnessed 10 or more elections in free India would readily agree that electoral politics has never sunk so low in the past as it has now. Truth and national interest were victims while destruction of the political enemy became the sole purpose of fighting the election. Yet there is one very bright side that needs celebration.

The redeeming feature has been the integrity of the election process and the mechanics of registering the choice of the voter. While the overall electoral turnout in this general election has been put at a tentative 67.11%, making it a historic one, there have been no proven instances of booth capture. Most importantly, there has been no credible evidence of any material failure of electronic voting machine (EVM) technology. But this is evaluating democracy against a low bar.

While the body of democracy might still be reasonably healthy, what must trouble every citizen is the the deep corruption of the soul of democracy.

Fissures

What is the damage done to the future of India?

 

First, the credibility and effectiveness of Parliament, the very institution that we have so painstakingly sent our representatives to, is set to experience a further erosion. The culture of aggressive disruption by the Opposition might get chronic, given that there has been no evidence that political parties will place the nation ahead of their political interests. Parliament can discharge its responsibility of law-making, only if parliamentarians rise above partisan interests.

Second, while Indian foreign policy has remained somewhat underwhelming and defensive (with the exception of the liberation of Bangladesh, and the Balakot attack), the growing nexus between a rogue neighbour and an ascendant superpower in the region has highlighted the radical need for an assertive policy within the framework of non-aggrandisement. That requires a risk-taking ability within a narrow space for manoeuvrability. It needs the government and the Opposition to stand as one. However, the behaviour of both national parties does little to inspire confidence in this direction.

An economic script

Third, by all indications, the Indian economy will face strong headwinds. Consumption-led demand is slowing down and the rural economy continues to be in distress. The ‘twin balance sheet’ problem is constraining new investments while the banking sector is in disarray. Yet, India can achieve at least a high single-digit growth. This will, however, depend on the government executing the next round of reforms in land and labour markets, further pruning unproductive subsidies, devising policies to attract foreign and private investments in infrastructure, and incentivising business to produce and service the world. The new government will have to sell to the public the necessity for some short-term pain for long-term gain. It will have to take bold financial decisions while being accountable and transparent. Election rhetoric and pre-election actions instead focussed on the opposite: doles, which are short-term gains; non-transparency in and witch hunting of procurement deals; and a systematic alienation of private enterprise. This is not the canvas on which a bold turnaround plan for the economy can be scripted.

 

Fourth, the nation has not only been sharply polarised but the elections have pushed it to react emotionally rather than rationally. Social media has unleashed raw emotions. In election season, every social issue has been viewed through the prism of political ideology.

Need for constructive discourse

Despite our glorious history of advanced thinking, realisation of our constitutional aspirations of equality and liberty has been stymied by inherited societal backwardness. Social reforms can happen only in an atmosphere of constructive debate and dissent and a shared vision of modernity. The discourse has to move away as much as possible from ideology to constitutional rights.

Fifth, democracy has to be anchored in the system of checks and balances among autonomous institutions, the judiciary, the defence forces and the Election Commission of India as well as an independent media and civil society. Despite the mutinous situation in some of these institutions and the disturbing circumstances in this election, there is no great fear that institutions have been permanently damaged. That cannot be said of the media, especially the visual and social media. The polarisation of the media on political lines and the loss of neutrality appear almost complete.

Does this mean that we have collectively failed to safeguard our future? No, there is hope and we have to act quickly and responsibly.

Role for civil society

The time has come for civil society to offer that hope and shoulder the responsibility for corrective action. Participative democracy has to be kept alive through a vigilant and demanding civil society that ensures restoration of the primacy of national interests. India has a very active and vast civil society that has several exemplars in the fields of advocacy, citizen rights, environment and philanthropy. There is a need and space for robust and credible civil organisations that act as bridges between the elected and the electorate.

 

Leaders from different vocations such as business, arts and administration have to render public service through civil organisations. Indifferent silence and armchair commentaries are not responsible options. Second, relevant organisations have to come together to demand a proper and orderly functioning of Parliament and State legislatures. A worthwhile experiment would be having citizen organisations at the constituency level that act as monitors of elected representatives.

Third, industry and trade organisations must demonstrate spine and pursue a vocal agenda of advocacy based on broader national interests and beyond narrow corporate gains.

Fourth, India has had a long history of socially committed organisations leading societal transformation from the front. While Parliament might enact laws when it comes to closing the gap between legislative intent and social practices, much falls on the shoulders of a socially conscious citizenry. Civil society needs to rise to meet this challenge.

Fifth, civil society should rise in force to safeguard the integrity and independence of autonomous institutions, should they face a threat.

Perhaps, the political class and our elected representatives will morph into butterflies and surprise us citizens with responsible behaviour. There is little doubt that the very presence of organised and active civil society would only serve to hasten such a splendid metamorphosis.

R. Seshasayee is a company director and corporate adviser

 

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2020 6:15:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-aftermath-of-a-nasty-election/article27199569.ece

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