Tomorrow we start voting and, once again, the incredible marvel of Indian democracy will capture the world’s attention. Eight hundred fourteen million people have the right to vote, over 100 million for the first time, spread over nine phases, across 930,000 polling stations and involving 1,878,306 electronic voting machines. It will take 36 days to complete the process. The counting, however, could finish in just 10 hours. Usually after 5 pm the outcome is reasonably clear.
How elections have changed in the last couple of decades! Three things stand out. The process has become considerably longer. In the 1970s and 1980s it was over in a day or two. The counting is unbelievably faster. Four decades ago it could go on for three days. And the process has cleaned up considerably. Now you hardly ever hear of booth-capturing or ballot-box rigging.
I wonder how many people remember the old counting days of the last century. Newspapers would erect enormous display boards outside their offices where manual results would be posted, as they slowly and, at times, contradictorily came in, whilst large crowds patiently waited, cheering or hooting the emerging outcome.
There were no TV discussions. There were no opinion polls. But the sense of celebration, as millions dressed in their finest for the occasion and came out in groups to vote, was always there.
What makes India’s democracy great is that so many can vote so efficiently to produce results that are so widely accepted. Given our daunting challenges, which may have changed since the 1950s but have not disappeared, this is truly incredible. It makes us all justifiably proud.
There is, however, a sad truth that we often ignore. Beyond the voting lie concerns about the campaign and the quality of choice on offer. Sadly, these do detract from our sense of achievement. At times considerably.
You cannot have failed to notice that on this occasion the campaign has centred around personalities and their tu tu main main rhetoric. Our politicians have taken delight in cutting each other to size whilst blissfully, if not deliberately, ignoring the issues that matter.
Of course, they stand for better education, improved health, lower prices, greater harmony, stronger defence and so on. Who doesn’t? This is like being on the side of the angels. No one could disagree.
The key issue they duck is how these are to be delivered. How will they be paid for? What are the priorities? Only when this is made clear and then debated in public will we have a real choice. Only then can we make an informed decision.
At the moment we vote in hundreds of millions; efficiently and readily accept the result. That’s, no doubt, impressive. But how informed are we about the people or parties we are electing? How much do we know of what they will do? Of the costs that imposes? Of the priorities that determine those decisions?
The answer is very little, if anything at all. That’s why our act of voting falls short of meaningful democracy. It won’t be any different this time.
Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal may have kept us entranced but, the sad truth is, they have also kept us uninformed. We have experienced, even enjoyed, their rhetoric and bluster, their rivalry and vituperation but we haven’t had the opportunity to question their policies and ask are they relevant for us. That’s because we don’t know them.
This is the important part of democracy we’ve been denied.
The views expressed by the author are personal