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Elections 2019: Democracy alive, but not in good health

the really disturbing element in this election has been the questionable role of the Election Commission, which from being perceived as an institution of independence came to be seen as a tool in the hands of the political executive because of a spate of decisions and omissions. It will take a long while for the institution to recover its credibility.

editorials Updated: May 17, 2019 12:19 IST
Hindustan Times
A woman voter casts her vote at a polling booth, Gurugram, May 12, 2019 (Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times)

As the 2019 elections draw to an end, it is time to look back at what has worked — and what has not — for Indian democracy. One of the fundamental features of the democratic political system is periodic elections. From the founding of the republic, barring the interregnum because of the Emergency, India has not only had regular elections, but also a peaceful and smooth transfer of power from one party to another following poll outcomes. To understand how remarkable this is, just compare it to Pakistan, where it was less than a decade ago that the first peaceful transfer of power after elections since 1947 happened. But every election is also an opportunity to look at the evolution of democracy.

The good news is that irrespective of the outcome, 2019 was a fiercely fought election. There was a high degree of political competition nationally, in each state, and in a majority of constituencies. This shows that political power can be challenged, and both incumbents and opposition had to invest in communicating their views to the people. There was mass outreach. Party organisations sought to involve people in their campaigns in different forms. Voters were highly aware of the big issues, thanks to the spread of media and technology. They asked hard questions to their candidates. All of this shows the resilience of representative democracy.

At the same time, this was an election that often descended into bitter, crude rhetoric, indicating a general decline in political discourse. Instead of really substantial issues — the future of jobs, the farm crisis and managing the transition from agriculture to industry, urbanisation, the nature of the welfare State — the campaign veered off towards issues that are frankly irrelevant, like Rajiv Gandhi’s track record, or outright divisive, like discussing the minority-dominated nature of the Wayanad constituency or open appeals to Muslims to vote for a particular candidate. All parties are to blame for this but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has to bear a larger share of the blame for the politics of divisiveness and distraction. But the really disturbing element in this election has been the questionable role of the Election Commission, which, from being perceived as an institution of independence came to be seen as a tool in the hands of the political executive because of a spate of decisions and omissions. It will take a long while for the institution to recover its credibility. The 2019 election has, therefore, shown that while democracy is safe, it is not in particularly good health.

First Published: May 17, 2019 12:19 IST