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.
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.
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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