Indian PoliticsBY NIDHI SHENDURNIKAR TERE

As I got my finger inked on April 30th in what was termed as the greatest celebration of democracy, there was an urge to reflect on the nature of political discourse amidst mind-boggling campaigning 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 it is more than likely) where is our democratic discourse headed to?

An analysis of the media discourse during the elections points towards an over-emphasis on the secular vs communal debate. Media and political pundits decried the communal nature of the campaign and even expressed unwarranted fears towards takeover by a communal political agenda. Media especially indulged in much fear mongering especially over the ‘Idea of India’ which was supposedly under threat. This has persisted in the post-election scenario as well with liberal sceptics mourning the thumping majority won by the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) expressing doubts over the unprecedented and clear mandate given by the people of India. It is this ‘secular vs communal’ dichotomy that eventually became the pulse of the election, leaving no space for a fresh electoral pitch.

Surprising enough that even after six decades of independence, the election discourse continued to digress from people’s issues and turned out to be more regressive than ever before. To say that the nature of the current discourse was rhetorical and vitriolic would not amount to exaggeration. Unfortunately, aside all the big expectations of “acche din aane wale hain”; our political class 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 unfolded – a new allegation, a new set of outlandish statements and a new controversy emerged – 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. Certainly, democracy can offer more than the usual promises and mudslinging politics. The election discourse this time around was not about people’s expectations; it was what the political class wanted to hear and speak. Although allegations, character assassination, slander are routinely a part of election debates; but the denigration of debate that this election witnessed leaves one amazed.

If democracy is about freedom and rights, then it has to equally embody ‘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.

“I promise you in 21st Century Narendra Modi will never become the Prime Minister of the country…. But if he wants to distribute tea here, we will find a place for him,” – Mani Shankar Aiyar, Congress leader.

While these and many other such statements are reflective of an erosion of political debate, they are also indicative of the hyperbole that Indian politicians indulge in. 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’ was more evident this time with particular emphasis on “who said what to whom”. Such a jarring campaign did not allow voters to be reflective about the quality of the democratic discourse as there was a possibility of getting carried away by the hype and hoopla generated by political gimmickry and 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 unemployment, poverty, education, energy, health, technology, economy etc. While every political party claimed to talk of development and kept their policy visions restricted to manifestos, all we saw in the public domain were personalized attacks and a personality centric election discourse – quite opposed to being people centric. All this election offered us were ‘dichotomous choices’ – a discourse seeped into ‘binaries’ which signified that while “I do not care whether I am good, but the ‘other’ is bad”. This is an unhealthy trend in a democracy.

While there is no harm in debating “who will win” and “how” but isn’t it more important to deliberate what a win would mean for the future course of the country. Should we allow ourselves to be fooled by petty issues and still believe in the festive spirit of democracy? Are we out there to enjoy or rather hold our political representatives responsible for their utter insensitive speak? Since, the discourse stooped to abysmally low levels, how much faith could the already disillusioned voter keep? To one’s total amazement the Election Commission (the body responsible for conducting and monitoring India’s elections) stood mute with power only to reprimand, ban and the revoke the same ban on candidates who openly flouted 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.

For once, the illusion that the present elections were more about people than power has proved to be exactly that – an illusion, courtesy the election discourse! When candidates reek of non-accountability and brazenness even before elections, certainly the post-election scenario does not look hopeful. Whoever says that this was a watershed election for India (as the results do convey now), should have a look at the election discourse – for what it conveys is quite the opposite. Seems we have missed the bus again!

(Nidhi Shendurnikar Tere is a Political Science doctoral candidate at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Gujarat, and a research fellow of the University Grants Commission working on India-Pakistan Conflict Mediation and Role of Media. She is also a guest blogger with Canary Trap)