Will elections in India ever signify anything?

Tabish Khair
Tabish KhairFeb 04, 2016 | 13:13

Will elections in India ever signify anything?

Elections are looming in Uttar Pradesh, and I am sure they will lead to much sound and fury.

Will they signify anything? Don’t misread me: I believe strongly in India as a democracy. Actually, I am proud to be an Indian in that respect — despite extreme internal pressures and dire prophesies by the West, we have remained a working political democracy.


This is no mean achievement, and more remarkable in an economically very uneven, diverse and largely under-educated country like India than in the rich West. But it is also sad that the structure of our elections is British and their tenor is brashly American. The British structure means that the winner takes all in each constituency — so that, in effect, only a minority of our voters are represented, because most votes are scattered among losing candidates.

This is very different from the structure in many other European nations, where parties are allotted seats on the basis of the percentage of votes polled by each party. It creates a stronger feeling of being actually represented among all voters.

The American tenor of our elections worries me even more. The latest Republican candidates present an extreme version of it in the US: not one of them seems to have a concrete agenda and their canvassing seems to depend on scurrilous attacks, innuendoes, posturing and vague promises. Their public debates would be a joke, if they were not so pathetically devoid of content.

Unfortunately, a version of this takes place in India during most elections, especially state ones. I am afraid the UP elections will not be an exception.


The problem with such empty, raucous electioneering is that it prevents a conversation from taking place. What one gets are arguments, innuendoes, shouting, accusations, dramatics. But a conversation (across parties) is essential for the development of any country, just as a conversation (across differences) is necessary for the well-being of any society. The strongly combative, indirectly abusive and largely rhetorical electioneering that we get in India —based on the American pattern — prevents a real conversation, which in turn prevents a consensus on vital national issues.

This is the one big difference between most post-colonial countries and the successful nations of Europe — a change of government in these European countries does not mean a major change in the direction of national polity, because its essential direction has already been settled by conversations (not blaming, shouting and scoffing) between all major parties. The US seems to present an exception, but not really. Because, sadly, the reins of American policy are in the hands of established pressure groups and hence beyond the full control of any Republican or Democrat president. In short, all these "developed" countries seem to maintain a general course even after a government falls.


This makes sense: a ship can get somewhere only if all its successive captains agree on the direction it should be moving in. That is one reason why I hope (but do not expect) that forthcoming elections in India will come to contain less sound and fury — and more matters of significance.

Last updated: February 05, 2016 | 15:44
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