Posted by: John Elliott | May 12, 2009

India’s Voting Ends – after four weeks of hot air

By tomorrow (Wed) night it will all be over. The fifth and final weekly stage of voting in India’s general election ends at 5pm and the results of exit polls, which have been bottled up progressively since voting started on April 16, will be announced a few hours later.

The count takes place on Saturday. India will then have a new government after a day or so – or a week or two, depending how the parties’ numbers fall around a hung parliament. That government will last for a year or two, or four or five depending how the parties link up – and jockeying for position on those link-ups has already started.

It’s been a dispiriting few weeks – or an inspiration, depending how you look at it. On the positive side, some 420m voters, poor and rich, have cast their votes in temperatures rising above 40 degrees C, and there has been relatively little violence. Leaders of all parties, large and small, have had masses of exposure on television, in the print media, and via internet and text messages, so everyone knows who is on offer.

No issues

However, there have been no national issues or debates at all:
– not on the economy at a time of international crisis and a domestic slowdown,
– not on resisting terrorism, just six months after the Mumbai attacks,
– not on social and developmental policies, even though half the country (or more) is ill-nourished, under-educated and has inadequate access to health care,
– not on how to handle industrialisation, when there is growing opposition from the poor to big companies and projects taking their farm land,
– not on India’s relations with its neighbours at a time when India should be having a constructive influence on crises in Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka,
– and not on India’s nuclear deal with the US that caused so much political uproar and almost brought the outgoing prime minister and government down last year.

Who’s fault is this? Many people blame the media, and rightly so because it has done virtually nothing to raise the level of debate.

But why blame the media alone when it is party leaders who ensured that airtime and front-page headlines are dominated by diversions and personality cults, and made no attempt to debate issues?

Gandhi family pr campaign

Here the Gandhi family is surely most to blame. They have been on a skilful public relations offensive for weeks to raise the profile of Rahul Gandhi, the 38-year old heir apparent to the party’s leadership and the prime minister’s slot, and then to paint in his much more charismatic and astute sister, Priyanka, as a charming sound-bite expert.

Nice though it has been to watch, Priyanka has had far too much exposure on just about everything – including whether Rahul will take the top job now or later, and whether she will enter politics. Then there is the future of prime minister Manmohan Singh, whose position was queried, confirmed, re-queried, and re-confirmed for far more days than necessary.

Not to be outdone, the Bharatiya Janata Party paraded its prime ministerial heir apparent – Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat where over 2,000 people were killed in anti-Muslim riots under his watch in 2002. That led to more column inches and airtime on his rights and wrongs – and how court cases against him were being reopened.

Then a 1980s Bofors gun contract corruption case suddenly hit the headline and was played up by the BJP because it embarrasses the Gandhi dynasty – but no one debated the massive bribes that continue to be paid on defence contracts.

More diversions

The BJP launched an idea to bring back billions of dollars of black money into India from abroad that wasted more headlines and then faded away. The BJP said it would bring money back, which of course will never happen but is a good headline subject – but it did not discuss how to stop it going out in the first place, which would be very embarrassing for money laundering politicians.

Another Gandhi, 29-year old Varun, emerged as an arch anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist. This embarrassed the BJP, which has him as a candidate, and infuriated both Narendra Modi, who wanted to orchestrate the BJP’s balance between extremism and moderation, and the ruling Gandhi dynasty that suddenly realised this maverick cousin could blur their moderate image among masses of less-educated voters.

Then there have been endless statements, re-written statements, denied statements, and revised statements from all the various prime ministerial hopefuls, and different parties, about who will link up with who after the polls, and under whose leadership. The media loves this because it soaks up many column inches and airtime and saves them having to think about policies, though it was largely irrelevant till the last day or two when ideas of likely poll results have become known.

The outgoing government is of course happy with all this because it saves it having to defend failures of the past five years and debate remedies for the future.

I went hunting for issues and found local ones. In West Bengal, there was opposition to the state’s 32-year long communist rule and attempts to industrialise land given to farmers in earlier years under land reform. In Mumbai South constituency, I met an independent candidate who wanted to change politics after the terrorist attacks, but few voters seemed to care. They went off for a long weekend and only 43% turned out to vote. In old Delhi I found voters, especially Muslims, disenchanted with their highbrow member of parliament.

I also found evidence of extensive corruption and ballot rigging – ranging from the communists fixing polls in West Bengal to Congress allegedly persuading candidates for rival small parties to defect or just do nothing, and the BJP paying prominent Muslims to stand for election to split the Congress vote.

Finally, there has been an extraordinary amount of attention paid by the Indian and international media to Mayawati, the charismatic and idiosyncratic Dalit (“untouchables” in the caste system) chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Her colourful behaviour makes great copy, so the fact that she has virtually no chance of achieving an ambition to become prime minister of a coalition is ignored. Controversial figures like Mayawati with masses of corruption cases against them do not get picked to lead coalitions.

So does this lack of policy focus and national issues matter? I’d say yes because it disillusions voters and devalues the system.


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  1. Dear Mr. Elliott,

    As an Indian this issue-less election does not surprise me. Stripping an election of any real issues suits both the politicians and the media. Performing a serious debate on the economic slowdown, terrorism, the unstable situation in the subcontinent, etc. needs hard work and intellectual capacity, something our politicians abhor. Can anyone imagine Mayawati speaking two coherent sentences on the global economic crisis? Can you picture a thug like Raj Thackeray explaining his audience about the fault lines in Pakistan? Instead, it is much simpler to talk of emotional issues such as Marathi pride and a Dalit’s daughter becoming a prime minister.

    As for the media, following-up on issues, asking uncomfortable questions (which might hurt business needs) too needs effort, and its much simpler to anchor the debate around sensationalist issues like Varun Gandhi’s disgusting speech and Jaya Prada’s nude posters. In any case they can always cite that the audience does not want anything serious to watch. Sharad Pawar, for instance, recently said that Maharashtrians wished that a Marathi Maanus becomes the Prime Minister, and he was obliged to follow their wish. He conveniently forgot that Maharashtrians also wished no farmer suicides in Vidarbha and as an agricultural minister he was duty-bound to prevent the deaths, but what did he do? I find it difficult to imagine Rajdeep Sardessai or the hyper-active Arnab Goswami to pose such questions to Mr. Pawar.

    As for social development policies for poverty removal: I cannot remember since Indira Gandhi’s 1971 slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’ (Eliminate Poverty) that poverty reduction has ever been a serious election issue (despite Congress’ lip service to the ‘Aam Aadmi’ in 2004): poverty and the other ills in our society are so deep-rooted that almost everyone has given up on it. Why waste time and energy on something that does not fetch you headlines (which can be bought anyway?)

    Anyway, I enjoyed your series in ‘Mint’ (and prior to it, your article in ‘the Lounge’). Best wishes!

  2. very well written.

  3. I agree. Democracy in india, this how it works. It is all about local and current issues. I would say media should have taken the entire responsibility as it exposes itself as assertive medium in the country. When it comes to assertive, then it has responbilities too.

    In India most of people either do not know or care for their rights, having said that they are practised to live with what they have. And this is taken as advantage by local politicians to campign with only local issues and avoid national issues. Now, I remember Gandhiji’s prinicple of empowering rural india (more power to panchayats) will only lead India as a good nation. If this has happened I belive rural india could have had questioning power, which has a power to change things. There is famous saying “there is no big difference between question mark and sickle”.

    I strongly belive things would change quickly as there are people to notice and bring out issues like you did, that should be taken care of.

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