No democracy is perfect but perhaps ours has a particularly debilitating flaw. This morning, as we await the Bihar results, might be an opportune moment to consider the issue.
Because our national elections and those for our 31 states and union territories (which have their own legislatures) happen at different times India seems to be in election mode virtually right through the year. This means politicians are as involved in canvassing and campaigning as they are in governing and administering. So it’s not surprising they can’t devote their full time to governance. In fact, sometimes it seems they devote almost none at all!
This wasn’t the case for the first few decades after independence. Then, national and state elections were held simultaneously and, in one fell swoop, we would get through the entire process.
Thus we knew when politicians were campaigning and, therefore, when their polemic or, even, vitriol could cross limits of civility. It was both to be expected but it was also only for a limited and well defined period. Thereafter normal, rational and, hopefully, effective governance would continue.
This is what has now changed. These days when one or more states are in the midst of an election — and there can be years when four or five state elections occur within 365 days including, every so often, our national elections as well — important parts of India are almost always in the throes of a campaign. And given the nature of those campaigns and the speeches they entail, encourage and provoke, the process tends to be divisive and polarising.
Worse, the emotion and passion but, more often, the anger and bitterness spreads through the rest of the country. 24x7 television literally brings it to our drawing rooms every single night. The newspapers ram it home with our morning tea and breakfast. There’s, literally, no respite and no escape.
Consequently, there’s no getting away from the negativity of our brand of politics. A healthy — even at times quarrelsome — debate is one thing but the constant flood — no longer is it a drip drip — of charge and counter-charge, accusation and allegation, derision and division threatens to vitiate the harmony and equanimity of our country. And believe me, it can be vitiated very easily.
This isn’t sensible. It certainly isn’t healthy. And it’s creating fractures and cleavages we may not be able to easily heal or bridge.
Now I admit I’m not the first to write about this. It’s a thought that’s occurred to many who are far more experienced and insightful. But today, after living through the Bihar campaign and the depressing but unceasing way it’s exacerbated essentially unconnected issues like the meat bans, Dalit killings , Dadri lynching and our traditional hostility to Pakistan, I feel a need to support the call to rethink the way we schedule our national and state elections.
Let me also admit, I don’t have the answer to this problem. I’m not sure whether holding all of them at one go is possible or, even, advisable. But I do know we can’t carry on the way we have for the last 30 years.
Whatever it may be, we have to find a solution. Therefore, an honest quest for one must start immediately. No doubt it could take a lot of time. It may well be contentious. And, undoubtedly, it will ruffle feathers. But that’s no reason for putting off the task.
This is a responsibility we only shirk at our own cost.
The views expressed are personal