Expert View: This election, come out to vote!

With the General Elections round the corner it is time to introspect on the importance of the elections and what our duties are as citizens towards the country’s democracy

The General Elections are round the corner to elect the new government as the term of the present government will expire in May 2019. An election in a democracy has been termed as its biggest festival. In the 2014 general elections, more than 84 crore electorates were eligible to vote which has now risen to more than 90 crores. It will be a huge event to organize for such a large population located in the diverse terrains of the country. No wonder that India has been termed as the biggest democratic country in the world. We Indians should feel proud of that.

All need to participate

It is expected that people in large numbers come out to vote as this great festival has serious overtones. We go to elect a government for five years, which will have a serious impact on our lives and on the growth of the country. It is our loss if we do not cast our votes and fail in our duty as citizens of our great country. Let us remember what one of the greatest democrats, Abraham Lincoln said, “Elections belong to the people. It is their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will have to sit on their blisters.”

It is generally seen that people prefer to sit in their drawing rooms enjoying cocktails and in other elite gatherings criticizing governments rather than go out and vote. Studies have shown that while the poor and illiterate come out in larger numbers, the rich and educated prefer to enjoy a holiday on election day. The voting percentage is generally low in the urban pockets, where the rich and the powerful and the critics of the government reside. It is not incorrect to say that there is a divide between ‘India’ and ‘Bharat’ on the voting pattern. It is the poor of rural Bharat who are the main participants in electing a government and they cannot be blamed if they elect people who do not work for the growth of the country. Some keep on criticizing the government for their failures but they should look within and criticize themselves, as it is they who elect the governments, either actively or passively. George Bernard Shaw has famously said, “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” Well-known critics of democracy have criticized democratic governments as the same are elected by ignorant people, while clever and educated people keep away from the electoral process.

Democracy has a lot of good points to cheer about and it has been correctly held as providing the best form of government. In a democratic set up like in our country, we have robust fundamental rights for citizens like ‘freedom of speech’, ‘equal protection before the law’ and ‘non-discrimination between citizens’. Theoretically, there is nothing wrong about it but in practice, we do observe many ills, particularly in our country. The ills arise in the electoral process.

Flaws in our democracy

First, it is the use of black money by candidates and political parties. The prescribed permissible expenditure outlined by the Election Commission is much less than what is actually spent, which is, on an average, in several crores of rupees.

Second, it is the use of muscle power. Win ability becomes the main criteria for political parties and hence candidates with muscle power are given tickets so as to be able to get supporters to the polling booths while terrorizing the voters of rival candidates.

Third, connected with muscle power is the criminal background of candidates. It is commonly observed that almost one-third of our lawmakers have some criminal case or the other against them. It is really bizarre to see that some candidates win elections even while they are in prison. Of late, due to the decision of the Supreme Court, persons convicted by a court with a prison sentence of more than two years cannot fight an election and this is a welcome step.

Fourth, the really wide-spread and serious problem is the use of caste and religion in our electoral process. Candidates are selected on this basis and voters also vote on this basis. National issues remain in the background while voters cast their vote on caste and religious considerations. There are some political parties which are even formed on these considerations. It is really sad to see that the country is segmented on these considerations and voting in the elections is also similarly segmented. It is not ‘the country first’ but ‘caste first’ and in some cases ‘religion first’. The government elected on such yardsticks cannot be expected to be an ideal government.

Fight it, not shun it

However, these existing ills of the electoral process should not deter us from casting our vote. The solution lies in fighting the drawbacks and not avoiding the process. Let there be massive voting and this will make prejudiced voters irrelevant. As Alfred E. Smith said, “All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.”

Secondly, we have to work hard on the spread of education. It is expected that educated voters will vote wisely, with due application of their minds. Analysts of democracy say that criticism will evaporate if our voters are educated. In this context, a quote from Franklin Roosevelt is very relevant which says, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore is education.”

Election side-effects

Like any good process, even election has some side-effects. One very visible side-effect is the fierce competition amongst political parties in the announcements and implementations of populist measures, which may be good for electoral gains but bad for the economy of the country. For example, the farm-loan waiver is one such measure which is used for electoral gains and it has been seen that ultimately such a measure does not solve the agrarian problem. Elections are won on the basis of various announcements and their implementation but farmers still keep committing suicide. Good politics is not always good economics.

"Some keep on criticizing the government for their failures but they should look within and criticize themselves as it is they who elect the governments, either actively or passively. George Bernard Shaw has famously said, “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve”

Secondly, during elections, the fault-lines of our social system like caste and religion are fuelled for electoral victory and in the process, society gets more divided and polarized. Third, there is a huge inflow of unaccounted cash in the system and this gives rise to inflation. Cash in the system can also be channelized to the wrong hands, thus giving rise to anti-social and terrorist activities.

Positive side-effects

One positive side-effect is that some unemployed people get temporary assignments to earn good money. Another positive side-effect is that the income of the media, both print and visual go up considerably due to advertisements given by the political parties. The income of transport companies and helicopter charter companies also rise.

A serious impact is on the resources of the country, as huge expenditure is made on poll personnel, security personnel and the management of polling booths. This gigantic management work by the country can be understood from the fact that the number of voters in the country is more than three times the population of the United States of America, which is the second largest democracy after India. One very sad side-effect of our election in recent times, particularly in the current year, is the rise of fake and toxic messages on social media, which ultimately go to harm the interest of the country.

Getting better, but can be better

Our democracy has survived for more than seventy years now, and it is getting stronger and better, despite the fact that we have been a poor country with a large number of illiterate voters. There was a time in the past when our elections used to be plagued with the notorious booth-capturing, particularly in Bihar and UP, but now hardly any such incidents are heard of. Violence used to take place on election day in many parts of the country but again the same is sharply on the decline.

Things are improving but we have a long way to go. The system even today does not permit many good people to fight elections. Political parties do not give them tickets as they lack money power. Suggestions keep on coming from many quarters that there should be state-funding to attract good people. Elections give rise to crony capitalism and hence it is also desirable that state funding is done. Business people fund the elections only to harvest undesirable gains after the government is formed. It has also been suggested that parliamentary elections and state elections should happen simultaneously, and undoubtedly, this is an excellent idea. It will cut the huge expenditure of the government, and also stop the governments from going in for populist measures every year, as in our country, elections are taking place almost every year.

People, the government and the Election Commission have to all join hands to make our democracy not only the biggest democracy but also the healthiest. We have a history of democratic functioning in some parts of our country even in ancient times, like in Vaishali. We should march forward, taking guidance from our ancient civilization and culture, to make our democratic set up very strong. This goal can be achieved if we keep in mind that what matters is ‘India first’. If India progresses then her citizens will progress simultaneously. The distressing part of our elections, particularly in recent times is to grab power, and the interest of the country is never in the forefront. Elections and democracy are very important for us, but the same should follow their true meaning. Mahatma Gandhi has also said, “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is brought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy.”

by S K Jha