In recent years, each time I have travelled to India, this country seems to be on the track of yet another election cycle: From Tamil Nadu and West Bengal in 2011 to the general elections earlier this year and now state polls in Maharashtra and Haryana. All of them seem to have been formed in a crucible of adjectives like “crucial” or “critical”, though they may be considered environment-friendly given the recycling of phrases like “high-stakes”.
Elections, we have often been told, are festivals of democracy. And, obviously, we do take our festivals very seriously: There are always plenty of demons that need to go up in flames, and fireworks that leave behind a pall of smoke. It’s fitting, then, that this round is bookended by Dussehra and Diwali.
Though, unlike the general elections in April and May, you’re unlikely to get too many Indians abroad flying home to partake of the stimulating festive spirit, even if that is marked by dry days. NRIs certainly enjoy their festivals, despite Diwali sometimes being celebrated a month before the actual date in New York or if a Dussehra celebration in New Jersey, complete with Ram Leela, has to be scheduled for a convenient weekend, even if that comes a week after the festival has passed. Such adjustments, like curated fireworks at Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, also impact secular shindigs like the India Day Parade in the Big Apple, which almost never coincides with August 15.
But then they also get to participate in the American version of the holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving in late November, with US mid-term elections on the first Tuesday of that month acting as an apt precursor.
This isn’t a Presidential election year in America, when the fever is pitched to delirium levels, even though it does segue nicely into flu season as well. To prevent chills on results night, the Obama Administration has ensured that unhealthy practices like the next round of enrolment for the healthcare exchanges is meticulously scheduled for mid-November and the mandate for small businesses to adhere to the norms of the Affordable Care Act are also postponed. After all, since control of the Senate is at risk, the bitter pill can be rolled down the road.
Similarly, if the White House seems a little more concerned about countering the Islamic State in West Asia, that may well be because polling suggests that’s something American voters are willing to swallow at this time.
US President Barack Obama had earlier calibrated his exit from Iraq to fit the election dynamic; it had to be completed by the end of 2011 since 2012 was a re-election year for him.
However, although American elections impinge upon policymaking as November nears, they’re hardly a constant source of influence. By the beginning of 2015, Obama will have reached the ultimate phase of lameduckery and with little to lose, except inconsequential polling points, a muscular return to the region may be predictable.
Similarly, we’ll have to see if the Indian government’s recent broad-chested approach to Pakistan will continue after our leaders exhale once the election results are announced.
In a majority of democracies, elections occur at intervals that provide enough time for the affairs of state to be dealt with.
In India, however, we seem to be hurtling from election to election. In 1950, when the first general elections were held, polls for all Assemblies were simultaneous. That changed in 1962 as Kerala and Orissa skipped the schedule. By 1977, ironically enough, Kerala was the only state where simultaneous elections were held. Getting back to simultaneous election mode has been suggested, but that’s a reform that may be as imminent as, say, those of the United Nations Security Council. In other words, don’t hold your breath.
There is a sadomasochistic overtone to states being “poll-bound”. Perhaps that’s because elections leave governance in knots. The next phase, meanwhile, should be in December.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal