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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin