Millennium Post

The dialectic of Elections

‘Elections are the site where the deeper dynamics of Indian society are played out’ – argues Bhikhu Parekh in The Great March of Democracy, Edited by S Y Quraishi, that delves into the subtle nuances governing electioneering in India today. Excerpts:

Democracy has three essential components – elections, public deliberation and protest. The first ensures that political power is exercised by those authorized to do so by the people; the second ensures that it is exercised for purposes formed by means of public discussion between different points of view and enjoys widespread consensus; and public protests are a bulwark against the misuse of political power and the neglect of national or important sectional interests.

Sole Vehicle of Democracy

In the past few decades in India, the last two components have suffered a decline. Parliament is not the deliberative body it once was. It meets for a shorter period than its Western counterparts do; its business is regularly disrupted; important policies are sometimes made behind its back and legislative measures are rushed through it; and there is little careful deliberation on the great challenges confronting the country. The tradition of well-organized public protests that was developed during the independence struggle has been allowed to decay, and has been replaced by episodic, uncoordinated, ill-planned and poorly led explosions of anger. It seems that the protests are often bought off, co-opted, ignored or brutally suppressed, and those involved are either demoralized, turn to violence, or resort to pseudo-Gandhian fasts and other dubious tactics.


As a result, elections have become more or less the sole vehicle of democracy. They occupy almost the whole of the democratic space, and carry the entire burden of people's aspirations and desire to shape their destiny. They form the centre of Indian political life and excite popular imagination in a way that no other area does. It is hardly surprising that the political history of recent decades is often constructed and told in terms of the chronology and outcome of elections, each forming a neat serial chapter in the national story.

Since elections have come to occupy such a central place, they provide the site where the deeper dynamics of Indian society are played out, revealing and accentuating both its disturbing and healthy trends. Elections, at both national and state levels, structure the political calendar and foreshorten the political horizon in a way that they did not during the Nehru period. For Nehru, they were pedagogical exercises, modes of articulating public opinion, and for electing representatives. Today, they are just vehicles of coming to power. All politics is geared towards winning elections, and policies are made and announced to facilitate this. Not surprisingly, then, they are simplified and reduced to slogans and populist catchphrases. Political parties, with the exception of the Left, are bereft of ideologies and well-considered programmes, and rely for their success on caste, religious and other affiliations and their leaders' personal charisma or dynastic aura. Since they rarely nurture and consolidate their supporters between the elections or deliver on their promises, money plays a crucial role and leads to all too familiar forms of corruption. The electoral support derived in this way is volatile and can easily evaporate with the result that the ensuing legislative majority is unable to count on its stability and lacks the confidence to take bold decisions.

Pros and Cons

The reduction of democracy to elections and the exclusive preoccupation with them also have deeper consequences. All legitimate authority is deemed to be derived from elections, and only the elected representatives are allowed the right to speak for the people. Civil society and NGO activists are told that they cannot claim to represent the people because no one elected them. By this logic, even Mahatma Gandhi would have to be declared an impostor! Once elections are detached from the complex structure of democratic politics and institutions, they can easily go hand in hand with support for authoritarianism. This is why Indira Gandhi was punished, not for imposing the Emergency, which many Indians actually welcomed, but for its 'excesses'. And it also partly explains why, as a recent survey showed, a large body of Indian public opinion supports illiberal measures and a 'firm' and 'strong rule' so long as the government is elected.

While the foregrounding of elections has these and other drawbacks, it has also been a great creative force in Indian politics. Elections have brought new groups into the political system, especially the poor and the marginalized. Too demoralized or apathetic to protest and too inarticulate to influence public deliberation, they find the ballot box an easier route to political influence and power. It does not require argumentative skills or courage. All one has to do is to go to the polling booth and press the right button. Elections have enabled large masses to appropriate and humanize the otherwise alien and impersonal state and put their stamp on it.

Elections are not just what Walt Whitman called the 'Great Choosing Day', but also the Day of Judgement with all its severity and finality. It is the day the wicked are punished, the miscreants chastened, the hypocrites sentenced to obscurity. The sovereignty of 'we the people' is affirmed, and the supplicants of yesterday in their exercise of judicial power pass a final verdict on their erstwhile masters. This adds the elements of contingency and surprise to political life, which no gods or astrologers can predict or prevent, and reinforces popular commitment to it. In their own way, elections are a national spectacle, a collective drama, a deeply bonding experience, and contribute to the political and emotional integration of the country.

Empowering the Electorate

Elections become a source of power only when people are organized. An individual's vote is one among several thousands, and is almost invariably impotent. He or she needs to join hands with like-minded people, and they must cast their votes in a coordinated manner. Not surprisingly, the centrality of elections has thrown up different kinds of interests or identity-based groups that have changed India's political landscape. While these organized groups clash, provoke violence and reduce deliberation to opportunistic negotiations of claims, they also empower individuals and sustain their faith in the system.

Not much research has been done on why people bother to vote in an election in India or anywhere else. After all, it takes up time and energy, and one vote makes no difference to the ultimate outcome. Voters are guided by a variety of motives. They might see themselves as active citizens in charge of the well-being of their community, and think it their moral duty to vote. They might have a fierce sense of freedom and a wish to have a share in determining who governs their lives and how. I am not sure that either of these considerations weighs much with most Indian voters.

Why then do they brave long queues and give up two or more hours of their time? Material reward, given immediately or later, plays a part, but that is declining. My guess is that three factors are far more important. Elections give voters a sense of dignity. They are courted, sought after and valued – an important consideration in a deeply unequal society. The vote also gives them a sense of power. They can, by forming part of a group, make a difference to the outcome of the election and improve their lives. And finally, the vote enables them to humble, even humiliate, and settle scores with those who generally despise or take them for granted. In casting her vote against a higher caste candidate or a government minister in the privacy of a polling booth, the voter silently mocks his pretensions and does what she dare not say or do openly.

Subtly but surely, elections are bringing about large psychological and social changes in India. They could achieve much more and their pathology could be avoided if democracy, currently largely limited to them, were to be extended to other equally important areas of political life as well.

(Excerpted with permission from The Great March of Democracy, edited by S Y Quraishi, published by Penguin under their imprint Penguin Random House)

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