Britain’s Guardian has said April will be ‘the most democratic month the world has ever seen’. Will it? It’s certainly true that more people are expected to vote in the general election than have ever voted in any election anywhere else in the world.
But will the election lead to a more democratic India, a more equal India? Will the new government provide what far too many voters still lack — education, healthcare, jobs, and housing — or will the voters end up with more of the same lopsided development?
The three most prominent actors in this electoral drama — Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal — promise that this time India really will change if they come to power. Their difficulty is that for all the trappings of power, the power they have will be so limited. Kejriwal promises to sweep India clean, but as chief minister of Delhi he quickly found how limited his power was. Modi is promising he will use his power to make the rest of India like Gujarat. Although the authoritarian style he has assumed has given him more power than any other CM, he hasn’t been particularly successful in improving the education and healthcare provided by his government.
Gandhi promises to use his power to reform his party so that it can deliver for the ordinary man. But when celebrating the Congress centenary in 1985 his father launched an attack on his party colleagues, calling them carpetbaggers. In spite of his massive majority he didn’t have the power to remove them. Now Gandhi has prevailed upon Sanjay Singh not to contest from Amethi by allowing him to carpetbag in Assam.
If a remarkable book written last year by Moises Naim, the former Venezuelan development minister, is right, whoever wins the election is likely to have even less power than earlier PMs. He calls his book The End of Power and argues “even as rival states, companies, political parties, social institutions fight for power, what they are fighting so desperately to get and keep is slipping away”. The causes he gives for the decay of power are only too evident in India — they include a young aspirational population, hyper-active media, social media, and increasing checks on power. One is particularly relevant to the election — the decline of trust in political parties.
The most obvious reason for this distrust is corruption. Ironically, the measures taken to check it are robbing PMs of more power by rendering the civil service, through which power is exercised, non-functional. In his Lalit Doshi Memorial Lecture, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Board of India, UK Sinha, said “decision-making has taken a beating”. One of the prime reasons for this, according to Sinha, is “there is absolutely no room for any mistakes. There are multitudes of guardians ready to believe that it was not an honest mistake.” For a civil servant the answer to that dilemma is to avoid the guardians by not taking decisions. We journalists have to consider the extent to which we contribute to this administrative paralysis.
There have to be checks to avoid corruption. Sinha believes this is the time “for the leaders of society to come together and take measures for boundaries, for checks and balances”. But the two main parties say nothing about these balanced measures.
The election has been reduced to a beauty contest between two men who utter platitudes about changing India. Their parties project them as heroic figures who will miraculously solve the mounting problems India faces. Perhaps Gandhi and Modi should listen to Pope Francis. He said recently that the hero worship that has been such a feature of his year in office was “offensive”, and reminded his worshippers that he was just “a normal person”. If the Pope doesn’t believe he can perform miracles, how can Gandhi or Modi? On present form if either wins he will find he has not come to power but to powerlessness. His failure to fulfil his promise to change India will further undermine trust in political parties, politicians, and politics.
Mark Tully is a former chief of bureau of the BBC, New Delhi, and renowned author and columnist
The views expressed by the author are personal