India’s huge vote in favour of democracy

Published by The i paper (15th April, 2019)

People went by camel, car, foot, bicycle and tractor when voting started last week in the world’s biggest general election. There is something wondrous about India’s vibrant democracy, for all its flaws, political failures and occasional violence. One polling station is so high in the Himalayas that officials must carry oxygen tanks. There are one million in total, stretching to tourist traps 2,000 miles away in Kerala and across the Bay of Bengal to the Andaman Islands. Such is the determination to ensure every voter can have their say, a five-strong team treks deep into a lion-infested forest in Gujarat to assist the ballot of a single elderly hermit.

Universal franchise is a concept of mind-boggling complexity in such a huge and diverse nation, with 900 million people – almost an eighth of the world’s population – eligible to vote. There are 12 million electoral officials, 2.3 million voting machines, and 570 special trains deployed during seven days of balloting spread over six weeks. At stake are 543 parliamentary seats fought by at least 8,000 candidates from more than 2,000 parties, who in total will spend more on campaigning than those in the cash-drenched race for the United States presidency.

Among the first people turning out last week was 61-year-old Anima Saikia, who told reporters in Assam she had never missed using her vote. ‘This is the only time we can do something,’ she said. ‘The game is in our hands right now.’ She is far from alone in showing such optimism about people power in her land. There was almost 70 per cent turnout in places which voted last week, a small rise on total numbers last time round and a huge increase on the first Indian general election four years after independence when less than half the electorate cast votes.

Such faith in democracy, seen also last week on the streets of Sudan, is touching when it seems so beleaguered in Western nations riddled with disillusionment. Studies indicate almost four in five of India’s 1.3 billion citizens are broadly happy with their system of government, despite its continuing challenges of grinding poverty, dire infrastructure, poor sanitation, resource scarcity and terrible pollution. Contrast this with the Hansard Society’s recent gloomy audit of engagement in Britain, which found more than half like the idea of ‘a strong ruler willing to break the rules’.

Yes, there are causes for concern over Indian politics. Polls predict Narenda Modi, the polarising prime minister, will retain power for another five years, partly due to a surge in popularity after fresh military confrontation with Pakistan. He leads a hard-right Hindu party that has normalised hate speech against the Muslim minority and intensified divisions, while his main challenger seeks to be the fourth generation from one family to become prime minister in six decades. There are concerns over fake news on social media, media freedoms and civil rights. Despite strong growth and diminished corruption, there is still deep economic distress and dire inequality.

Yet this country is an important beacon for democracy at a time when the idea – along with all its allied freedoms – is under assault. After the fall of the Berlin Wall it seemed liberalism had won the ideological fight. But the end of history had to be postponed; bookshops are flooded now with titles on the death of democracy. First the United States frittered away moral capital in places such as Iraq, then retreated from its key role as champion of the cause under Donald Trump. Europe has lost confidence and turned inwards, symbolised by the mother of parliaments having a breakdown over Brexit. Freedom House, the US think-tank, reported that rights and civil liberties have shrunk worldwide to their lowest point for more than a decade.

There are many causes for this crisis, from the 2008 financial meltdown through to technology. The result is autocrats feel emboldened amid Western detachment, as proved most obviously by Vladimir Putin. They are encouraged to see China surging forward, tightening state control of its own citizens as it challenges US hegemony. Money, power and influence are sliding rapidly east. Soon the continent will be home to two-thirds of the world’s population, led by the expanding giants of China and India with their contrasting political systems.

From glistening infrastructure projects through to dry statistics on average income and annual output, there is a yawning development gap between these two nations. China is making the big leap forward, its authoritarian model dubbed a ‘new option’ by President Xi Jinping and winning admiring looks from poorer nations keen to follow its impressive lead. India can seem sclerotic and shambolic by contrast – although sometimes this is due to political and judicial checks on power. Yet Modi has spoken about this century belonging to India. And in the long run, he might be right, based partly on demographics that will see India surpass China’s ageing society as the planet’s most populous country.

As the East rises and the West falls back in influence and strength, we must hope India’s lively democracy not only survives but thrives, in order to offer an alternative model to the developing world. Despite concerns over many issues from pollution to poverty, India deserves to feel pride in its political process. It is profoundly moving to see such commitment to the simple idea of one person, one vote in such a sprawling nation – especially when so many people in richer nations have become jaded and less complex smaller nations have struggled to sustain the system. ‘Democracy is good,’ said Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. ‘I say this because other systems are worse.’

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