Why the Indian elections will always go wrong

Last Updated: Tue, Jun 25, 2019 11:55 hrs
Elections

The 2019 elections have been fascinating for me.

For one, I got to vote after missing two elections – once, I lived abroad and the Indian embassy does not offer citizens the option to cast their votes from across the seas. The second time round, my name was missing from the voters’ list. I had to file a complaint, and hope for the best.

For another, I’ve retired from regular journalism and realised the only activism that truly engages me is the fight for animal rights. Most humans can take care of themselves, and it is far more interesting to watch them destroy each other and themselves than attempt to stop it.

Third, I’ve been living in a state whose assembly has spent the majority of its current term (almost) headless. And I’m aware of the huge advantages for the public when politicians are so anxious about their futures that they forget about the power they currently wield.

These factors have made me keen to observe the elections – what happens before and what happens during, which don’t really have much to do with what happens after.

The problems with the Indian election begin far ahead of voting year. About halfway through a government’s innings, the media takes a stance; journalists turn activists, and activists find access to web portals where they can air the opinions they have nursed for decades. Most of these activists live in the perpetual adolescence of academia, and this affords them the time and space to write long pamphlets in dense prose, filed away under ‘Opinion’ in widely-read news portals. Celebrities then get into the act, and thanks to Twitter, Instagram, hashtags and selfies, either manage to please activists enough to be branded intellectuals or please politicians enough to be branded useful. Since they are “influencers”, we believe they actually do influence their fans-slash-followers.

The popular notion is that these journalists, activists, and influencers must be left-leaning, unless, of course, they please the politicians. They themselves believe they are left-leaning. They are not entirely sure what the implications of this are. But they are convinced anti-establishmentarianism is synonymous with taking a stance against the incumbent government. Therefore, they see little conflict in comparing the educational qualifications of various leaders, an act they would have shunned as “elitist” five years ago. They see less conflict in openly campaigning for people who have either proven themselves inept, or are yet to prove themselves and, in all likelihood, never will.

Politicians whose résumés read well enough to get them tenure at elite universities typically prove to be poor leaders, but excellent workhorses. Ideologues who have won college elections forget that they were tested within a control group and are stunned when they find they inspired no confidence in a larger electorate.

Perhaps we will watch the latter occurrence this year. The former brings to mind an example that will stand the test of time – Manmohan Singh, the man whose economic policies in 1991 changed India, became the silent prime minister, the pet puppet who was his master’s voice. Even after his watch ended, in what might be one of the most ignominious moments of his life, he made an obsequious ode to Rahul Gandhi when the latter was made Congress president.

The next problem, of course, comes up on Election Day itself. I found myself disillusioned by the choices I had. I was disturbed by the number of people who declared loudly in the queue that they were going to exercise the “NOTA” vote.

Over the years, politics in India both at the central and state levels has been reduced to a two-horse race. Unfortunately, this means there is little point in voting for an individual. One knows that the most upright politician will wield little power if he or she is in a corrupt party. One also knows that most of the bigwigs, who could actually influence the outcome of the election, have been born into or groomed into dirty politics.

Another problem is that most of the people lining up did not realise they would not get to exercise their choice. The electoral identity card was not enough to cast one’s vote. One had to get a voters’ slip from a desk some distance away from the booth, a fact one only realised after having queued up. The other option was to find one’s photograph in one of three stacks of print-outs. There was no computer at my booth, because apparently there were fears of hacking.

As it happened, nearly 500 of the 2000 registered voters in the polling centre had had their names struck off the list, including an old woman who walked with her children’s help to cast her vote.

The EVM appeared to function fine, at least when I voted, but there are reports that this has not uniformly been the case across the country.

The next problem, of course, is that even when the results are out, we have little control over what happens. We can’t even be sure who the prime minister is going to be, whose inner voice will say what, and who will become the prime minister’s inner voice. We have no control over whether the ruling party chooses to spend our money on a gigantic statue or on giving its leaders’ friends in need a helping hand or on billboards or on foreign travel or on public schemes or on changing the names of pre-existing public schemes.

My experience over the last few years has reaffirmed my belief that a hung parliament is usually best for the public. With every party in Tamil Nadu focusing on the 2021 elections and every politician trying to ensure he or she will return to the assembly, the people are largely left to their own devices.

And if living through the tsunami and the floods in Madras has taught me anything, it is that people function best when they are left to their own devices, even at the worst of times.

More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:

When the people want a change


Abhinandan Varthaman: Hero, yes, but victim first


Tokenism won't stop terror attacks

Pulwama attack: When humans become symbols


The legislative dangers of election year

Priyanka and the inheritance of power

The G.O.A.T vote: When opinion offends

The hooligans in our homes

Why the Ambanis should rule India

Ten things the chowkidars failed to protect


Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com