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British polls no match for the Indian ones

A British general election is always much more fun for Indians to watch than a US Presidential election because the British system so closely parallels our own, writes Vir Sanghvi.
By Vir Sanghvi | None, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAY 09, 2010 09:35 AM IST

A British general election is always much more fun for Indians to watch than a US Presidential election because the British system so closely parallels our own. Thanks to a combination of unintended factors I found myself in London on Thursday night just as the votes were being counted for the UK General Election.

I haven’t been in England on counting night for many years now so it was interesting to compare their election to ours.

First of all, let’s admit straight out that there are things that the British do better than us and election journalism (in print and on TV) is one of them. I have now been on TV during a fair number of Indian elections, both as anchor and as guest, and I won’t deny that nothing we do matches British standards. The graphics, the scale of the sets, the varied nature of the election programmes (many of ours degenerate into talk fests), the calibre of the anchors, the standard of the reporting, and most of all, the intelligence of the guests, are all far superior to ours. But mostly, it is the way that British politicians express themselves that makes the difference. Ours either hold forth at great and pompous length or get into silly fights.

Secondly, there are things that Indians now do better. The actual organisation of elections for one. Watching the results stream in on Thursday night I was struck by what a small-time affair a British election is compared to the massive, multi-phase enterprise that our Election Commission runs. Politicians would talk about winning 23,000 votes to get to Westminster and I would say to myself, “That’s not a very large majority by Indian standards.” It took me a while to realise that they were not discussing majorities. They were talking about total votes! Our elections where majorities of over 1 lakh are not uncommon, are so much larger in scale.

But even this tiny exercise ran into all kinds of problems. Because turn-outs were high this year, some polling centres actually ran out of ballot papers. In many constituencies, polling was so badly managed that hundreds of voters were denied the opportunity to cast their votes.

The problem with ballot papers reminded me of something else. Whereas Indian elections are relatively high-tech affairs with electronic voting machines, British elections are stuck in the old 20th century methods. Consequently, it takes hours for votes to be counted and ages before trends emerge. Contrast this with our general election. I was on the NDTV election programme during our most recent election and it took Prannoy Roy only a couple of hours after the results starting streaming in to declare that the Congress would be the largest party in a hung Parliament.

Thirdly, we are used to hung Parliaments. Since 1984, when Rajiv Gandhi won by a landslide, no party has ever secured an overall majority at an Indian election. There are many reasons for this, including perhaps, India’s growing diversity and Rajiv’s decision to lower the voting age to 18. On the other hand, Britain, which is a far more homogeneous society than India,
has always prided itself on the stability of its democracy. First-past-the-post may not be the fairest electoral system but the Brits like it because they claim it usually throws up majority governments.
I can remember only one notable exception during my lifetime. In February/March 1974, Prime Minister Edward Heath called an election as part of his battle against striking miners. The British public was not convinced that this was an issue worthy of an election and Heath lost his majority even if the voters denied a full victory to his Labour opponents. In October 1974, a second election was held and Labour finally won a small majority.

The Thatcher and Blair years, with their decisive elections, made Britons forget the 1974 precedent. And certainly, there should have been a clear winner this time. Labour had been in power since 1997 and had led Britain into an unpopular war in Iraq. The country is in the grip of a recession and Prime Minister Gordon Brown is barely in control of his own party. A year ago, the Conservatives were 20 per cent ahead in the polls so this election should have been a wash-out for Labour.

In fact, the voters took away Brown’s majority but refused to give one to Conservative leader, David Cameron. Why should this be so? The only possible explanation is that British voters, like their Indian counterparts, are no longer enthusiastic enough about any one party to give it a clear majority.

Fourthly, this election established the value of debates. For decades, British prime ministers have refused to participate in American-style debates with their rivals. This year, a weakened Brown was forced to agree to three debates with Cameron and Liberal leader Nick Clegg.

I found the debates almost painful to watch. Cameron’s background is PR — so naturally, he was glib and articulate on TV. Clegg is young, good-looking, fresh, wears shiny gold ties and won over audiences with the sincere game-show host manner he had been taught by his handlers. The final effect was to see two well-spoken, well-dressed, young Englishmen run circles around poor, middle-aged, jowly, awkward Scotsman, Gordon Brown. Naturally, Brown lost every debate. And Clegg was the clear winner of the first, leading to talk of a Liberal revival.

I argued at the time that British voters would not regard the debates alone as being reason enough to make voting decisions. It was all very well to say that Clegg had won a debate. But did it follow that all those who admired his TV presentation skills would necessarily vote for him?

The results tend to support my position. The so-called Liberal revival faded on polling day and the party did roughly as well as before. As for Brown, he may have lost every debate but he still came back from behind, from being regarded as the man who would lead Labour to its worst defeat in 50 years, to denying David Cameron the overall majority that he should have had sown up.

So, yes, people do win debates on the basis of style over substance. But voters go for substance, anyway. They are not foolish enough to be blinded by style, let alone by gold ties.

It is too early to say how long this hung Parliament will last. But from an Indian point of view, there are things we can learn from Britain. We can run campaigns (and stage election programmes) that are more closely focused on the issues and we should encourage debates because voters can see past the superficialities of presentation.

On the whole, however, we have much to be proud about. We run the largest election in the democratic world. And we do a much better job of it than the Brits do with their little election.

The views expressed by the author are personal

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