High five for Indian democracy - GulfToday

High five for Indian democracy

Dr. N Janardhan

Janardhan is Senior Research Fellow, Gulf-Asia Programme, Emirates Diplomatic Academy.

Janardhan is Senior Research Fellow, Gulf-Asia Programme, Emirates Diplomatic Academy.

India Election Celebrations

Supporters of BJP celebrate in Chandigarh, India. Reuters

India needs no reason to celebrate. The land of plentiful multicultural festivals is recovering from another unique celebration – elections in the world’s largest democracy, involving about 900 million voters, nearly 2,300 political parties (state, regional and national) that are registered with the Election Commission, about 8,000 candidates, and costing the exchequer approximately $7 billion, making it the world’s most expensive polling exercise.

The barometer of this pan-India political festival may have tipped in different directions and yielded mixed emotional results to a diverse electorate. But in the din of 543 political winners who will represent their people in the 17th parliament, there are also five significant takeaways, which add teeth to the country’s democratic tradition.

First, the recently concluded polls to elect the 17th Parliament saw an increase of 1.03% in voter turnout over 2014. The turnout of 67.47% is the best ever in Indian history and laudable given the oppressive weather conditions that prevailed during most weeks of the polling process. (The turnout in the 2016 US presidential election was 65.44%.)

For the statistical minds, the turnout in Indian parliamentary elections was 56.97% in 2009, 58.07% in 2004 and 59% in 1999.Translating these percentages into actual numbers indicate that while 364.5 million votes were cast in 1999, it increased to 610.3 million in 2019. This means Indian democracy has seen a quantitative growth of about 60% over two decades.

From a qualitative perspective, more than 260 million women cast their ballot this year, the best show ever by Indian women. If democracy is about furthering people’s political representation and empowerment, both these quantitative and qualitative indicators are heartening.

Second, the concerted effort to call the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) bluff fell flat. Three days after the results were announced, the Election Commission said it had not received any adverse reports about votes recorded in EVMS not matching with voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) slips.

The VVPAT system was used for the first time to allay concerns about the efficacy and safety of the EVM. Following the Supreme Court’s orders that votes in five polling stations per assembly constituency be verified, the Election Commission matched 20,625 VVPAT slips with the EVM votes in over 4,000 assembly constituencies.

The fact that exit poll results, based on face-to-face interviews, were not too way off from the actual results also helped the EVMs stamp their infallibility.

This bodes well for the future of about 2.3 million EVMs that were used at nearly one million polling stations. It also means that these machines, which replaced paper ballots in elections across India between 1998 and 2001, will continue to safeguard against fraud and violence that was rampant until the turn of the century.

Third, the maturity of Indian voters stood out. Whatever the reasons, after voting out one party six months ago in the assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the people in these states switched sides again in the parliamentary poll.  This practice of voting for different parties in the state and at the Centre was partly evident in Odisha’s simultaneous poll too (but absent in Andhra Pradesh).

Fourth, a significant result of this election was the deep dent to dynastic politics across India. Tired of family-based nepotism, voters favoured the grit of the ordinary over the glamour of candidates from famous political families in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana, and Karnataka.

The fact that the vanquished dynasts belonged to not one but a cross-section of parties adds more credibility to the voters’ choices.  

Fifth, it appears that Indian politics has indeed become creative and competitive, irrespective of the winners and losers. As the voters mature, all the political parties are being forced to think out of the box in setting the agenda.

As soon as one party in a state rolled out a direct cash transfer scheme to its farmers, another borrowed and implemented it across India. A third went even further by offering 12 times that amount to 20% of the population at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

A combination of the voters’ expectation and impatience is forcing political parties and politicians to pursue different measures to chart out better manifestoes, varied welfare schemes and improved governance. This is nurturing competitive politics, which is healthy for any democracy.

While the robustness of the democratic institutions increases and political consciousness of the voters rises with every election, it is up to the political parties, and the government in particular, to rise up to the occasion and further improve democratic governance by delivering on their promises.

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