Indian election proves vast exercise in futility

INDIA IS now roughly halfway through the greatest democratic exercise in the planet, in which more than 600 million voters go to the polls to elect 543 MPs. With the exception of Kashmir, where most voters have obeyed a call to boycott the polls, the colossal event is proceeding relatively smoothly.

Most voters will not notice the bucket of cold water which was delivered yesterday by a Pakistan-based organisation, the Mahbub-ul-Haq Human Development Centre. But it would be better for Indian democracy if they did.

In a report on human development, the centre argues that democracy in South Asia "is not about people, it is about access to state power".

"All South Asian countries, except Bhutan, share the trappings of democracy, but have failed to provide their people with freedom from the worst forms of deprivation," the report adds. In India and Pakistan, women account for only 7 per cent of MPs, but landlords, the traditional holders of power in the countryside, account for one-third to one-half of MPs in the two countries.

An Indian general election is so ponderous that it is like watching a caravan of camels crossing the desert. India's lower house, the Lok Sabha, has 543 MPs. The higher house, the Commons, has more. But it will take a month for the nation to vote - the last of five polling days is 3 October. And depending on how muddy the result, it may take another month for the national leader who has the edge to patch together an administration.

This tortuously long-drawn-out process has only a slim chance of producing a government that will stay the distance. Indian governments have become so fragile that a general election is becoming an annual affair, like the festivals of Ramadan or Holi.

Indian elections are far more diverting than elections anywhere else in the world. They bubble over with music, dancing, parades, oversize garlands, monster cut-outs, balloons, motorcycle gangs waving flags and hooting, movie stars, eunuchs, elephants, and helicopters dumping tons of fragrant petals on huge crowds.

There are also bomb blasts, shootings, mass takeovers of polling stations, mass drunkenness, mass manufacture - in certain places - of fake ballot boxes, and skulduggery of every description. But intelligent debate is conspicuous by its absence.

The closest this election has come to an issue is whether or not Sonia Gandhi's foreign birth should disqualify her from high office; and whether the recent Kargil War in Kashmir was a demonstration of the Hindu nationalist BJP-led coalition's sterling patriotism - in chasing the Pakistan Army intruders back across the border- or its incompetence - in allowing them to establish themselves on the Indian side in the first place.

As a result, Indian intellectuals are down in the mouth. Vinod Mehta, editor of the influential weekly Outlook, called it "an election nobody wants".

His magazine has gone out of its way to snub the process. The cover of the current issue features eight men and women ("India's true leaders") none of whom is standing for election.

Mr Mehta writes: "Putting a mark on the ballot paper should be an uplifting experience.

"Increasingly that constitutional right is fast becoming a nightmare" All parties, he concludes, are so tainted by compromise and corruption that the only way out for the intelligent voter is either to abstain or make a "non-party choice", taking the available candidates strictly on merit.

It is the great Indian conundrum that while democracy is more secure and thorough-going than in any other non-Western state one can think of, it strikingly fails to fulfil the basic democratic project: transforming society to the advantage of the people.

The problem is that India's divisions of religion, caste, region, language, class, are so deep and numerous that no political force is compelling enough to transcend them; to make voters think and act as Indians first, and as Jats, Muslims, Dalits, or Kannada- speakers only much later. Instead seven national and 176 other parties battle it out, in the process confirming, strengthening and deepening society's divisions, not eradicating them.

It was India's innumerable divisions that made British domination feasible 200 years ago, and that has left India with a lingering paranoia about foreign intrusion. Opposition to British rule created a sort of unity for the first time in the subcontinent's history. But today, India lacks any such common cause.

An Indian election campaign is thus a beguiling celebration of difference and diversity, a fantastic national party. But the voting resolves nothing.

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