India indeed faces one of the most hotly disputed elections for its 530-odd Lower House seats in a massive exercise stretching over seven weeks from 11th April to 19th May 2019
With live coverage of issues and campaigning aired from 24-hr TV channels, YouTube and other social media, many would have followed the exuberant, sometimes chaotic, certainly lively debates and campaigning going on in the world’s largest vibrant democracy. India indeed faces one of the most hotly disputed elections for its 530-odd Lower House seats in a massive exercise stretching over seven weeks from 11th April to 19th May 2019.
Ruled since independence mostly by the Indian National Congress and its occasional allies, that venerable party, headed by what appears like a “royal” family, faced a severe mauling at the 2014 elections at the hands of a more nationalistic BJP, with only 44 seats against a sweeping 283 for the BJP. A “Modi wave” of unprecedented proportions! In the complex mix of traditions, cultures and communities making up the endearing if sometimes annoying Indian mosaic, many factors have and will come into play, but it is increasingly probable that there will be no “wave” either way this time around.
For the Congress, it is a story of survival, hoping to cash in on anti-BJP incumbency, economic dissatisfaction in some quarters (rural folk, farmers, unemployed youth,…) despite decent overall growth, and an anti-Modi alliance with a variety of modest to strong regional players. Rahul Gandhi’s hit hard at PM Modi himself, accused variously of being corrupt, a liar or a “thief”, no doubt an expression of deep resentment that Congress itself and its “royal” family could have been so easily stamped in 2014 with the brand of pervasive corruption.
That the Gandhi family has now upped the ante by throwing the kitchen sink at the BJP and PM Modi, in the form of Rahul-Priyanka-Sonia, is a measure of the degree of discomfiture with electoral forecasts and predictions for Congress, its campaign, its manifesto and its somewhat sputtering grand alliance with regional power-brokers. In the complexities of state-level electioneering, each with its own specificities, which credible independent pollsters have to factor in, latest polls (for instance, the CSDS-Lokniti survey published this week in The Hindu) do indicate that Congress might double its 2014 seat tally to between 74-84, while the BJP would retain its dominance (222-232 seats) but can only be marginally confident of being returned to power, even with its existing allies (another 41-51 seats).
PM Modi may well have been outstanding on the geopolitical world scene, establishing India as an economic and military regional power-house, if not quite a first-tier international player, to be reckoned with, he may have championed new strategies and policies in the national security discourse for a country racked by internal squabbling even when it faces hostile neighbours, he may have encouraged a formidable triad of ISRO-DRDO-HAL to demonstrate remarkable achievements in advanced military and space endeavours, he may have pushed India’s metro, road and rail infrastructure to impressive roll-outs, yet, there is an impression from afar that BJP has not quite lived up to the expectations it birthed in 2014. If a BJP-led alliance does get another mandate this coming month, it will have to retain those credentials while paying far more attention to areas where more, perhaps much more, could be done to alleviate some of India’s social problems.
As somewhat outsiders to this massive democratic exercise and its raucous nature, we might nonetheless have taken note of a few interesting points, beyond the cardinal one concerning the battle by a dynasty of “royals” that have ruled India for much of its post-independence history and still oozes that sense of entitlement that some in the western press find so attaching.
The first is undoubtedly the considerable latitude, reactivity and observable “neutrality” of India’s Electoral Commission during the election run-up phase.
Petitions of all sorts from one party or another are heard rapidly and rulings or cautions emitted, the latest case being a non-objection decision to the much-talked about Modi’s biopic by a private citizen, actor-producer Vivek Oberoi exercising his natural freedom of expression. The Congress challenge was appropriately dismissed this Monday as time-wasting by India’s Supreme Court bench on appeal although the EC has asked the release to be stalled. Literally hundreds of millions of people, in and outside India, appetite-whetted by the frivolous Congress fretting and consequent publicity, will now await the release date of the biopic.
The second point worth noting is the obligation to hold general elections BEFORE the 5-year deadline of a mandate-end. This applies, it seems, by virtue of the simple fact that tenure of members of the Lok Sabha is for a term of five years (or less). Members were elected in the last general elections, held between 7 April 2014 and 12 May 2014. Therefore, the term of the current Lok Sabha will officially end by May 2019 and general elections for the next Lok Sabha needed to be held before May 2019 (under EC schedule and supervision) to enable a new government to be formed.
This is another healthy difference from our democratic scenery which should inspire our own legislators, preventing renewal of a legislature to be dragged much beyond its normal term of office, to suit political expediency of a sitting PM, whoever he or she may be.
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Another Audit Report: Business as usual?
The publication last month of the Audit Report illustrates how fortunate we are that at least some institutions do indeed continue to conduct their professional work without fear or favour, earning in the process, the country’s gratitude and respect. We have collectively, over the past four years, witnessed enough disturbing instances to shake our certainties, that such a normal annual exercise of public accountability and transparency has taken airs of a “miracle”.
This is not the first Audit Report that is damning on wastes, inefficiencies and sloth in the public sector as projects, plans, budgets, time-scales or milestones go haywire and engulf billions of public monies nowadays down the drains. No Ministry is spared and there must have been a time when every one of them and their highly-rated top-notch staffers would quail at the prospect of the Audit findings and Report.
These days, after the outcry, we simply hear that some sort of Committee would follow up or look into the matters raised, obviously with neither the need nor the urgency to respond to public concerns after a few months or weeks. Neither the press, jostled every week by new headline grabbers, nor the political class, preparing new challenges, have the stamina and endurance it seems to keep up the pressure for some meaningful change to the chronic failures of our systems and processes.
Are we condemned to this unsatisfactory state of affairs, the depressing feeling of business-as-usual? Should the follow-up, if any, be left entirely to parliamentarians or to the politico-administrative nexus that runs individual ministries, departments, parastatals and, indeed, government as a whole? It is perhaps time for integrating citizen concerns more effectively within the boundaries and guard-rails of democratic functions and accountability.
Why should experienced past Finance practitioners and past Audit Directors or Public Accounts chairmen, the likes of Dr Rama Sithanen, Hon Xavier Duval, Hon Alan Ganoo, not sit down to work out an approach that is both implementable and effective? Governments may always, once elected, pay lip-service to the genuine concerns embodied in their party or alliance manifesto or their campaign pledges for better governance. But for once, away from political horizons and pressures, independently of political jockeying, such a commonly worked out commitment might bring some fresh air to a depressing state of affairs.
* Published in print edition on 12 April 2019