India organizes the real Mother of all Elections


India organizes the real Mother of all Elections

India organizes the real Mother of all Elections
India organizes the real Mother of all Elections

The 7th of April is the starting day of the parliamentary elections in India, the results of which will  be  available  on  the  16th  of  May.Manjeev  Singh  Puri,  India’s  Ambassador  to  Belgium,   Luxembourg and the EU, will guide us through the peculiarities of this prolonged and gigantic election operation. He will elucidate the relations between national parliament andthe state level,  big  names  and  small  ones,  international  themes  and  local  issues.  And  what  about Indians in Belgium: will they vote as well?

In  Belgium,  there  are  about  9,500  Indians-with-Indian-passports,  with  an  equal  number  of people of Indian descent but without Indian nationality.The first category has a right to vote, the second does not. In order to make use of their  vote, Non Resident Indians (NRIs, in the official jargon) first have to register in one of the 543 Indian electoral districts.

They will also have to be present in their constituency the day the election caravan calls in at their district, so as to cast their vote. The result of this regulation is that more than 20 million NRIs across the world will be virtually absent in the elections. This year, 11,800 of them have registered.

With  almost  815  million  citizens  entitled  to  vote,  these  parliamentary  elections  in  India constitute  the  biggest  ballot  heldin  the  world,as  well  as  in  history.  Therefore,  the  very numbers are  overwhelming, ,  especially for  Belgian  inhabitant, who  thought they would themselves take part in the ‘Mother of all Elections’ in May.

In total, 930,000 polling stations have been provided, where 5.5 million civilian staff and 11 million security officers (including army and police forces) will ensure that everybody will be able to cast  his/her vote on on one of the 1.4 million electronic voting machines.

The entire democratic  exercise  will  cost  the Indian state about 35 billion rupees (with the currIndian state about 35 billion rupees (with the currIndian state about 35 billion rupees (with the current exchange rate, this equals 425 million ent exchange rate, this equals 425 million ent exchange rate, this equals 425 million  euro).

India IS democracy

According  to legend, Winston Churchill did not expect Indian  democracy to  be  long-lived, except maybe in the form of a process which would bring to swindlers and charlatans. During  the last half-century, South Asia has witnessed quite a few military rulers and putsches, but  not in India, where representative democracy has been safeguarded particularly well– save for a short period characterized by exceptional measures during the 1970s, under the rule of under the rule of  Indira Gandhi.

For  Ambassador  Puri,  it  is  extremely  difficult  to  give  an  answer  to  the  question  as  to  why democracy  thrived  better  in  India  than  in  the  neighbouring  countries.  ‘Already during  the struggle  for  independence,  people  like  Mahatma  Gandhi  and  Jawaharlal  Nehru,  but  also Mohammed  Ali  Jinnah  [the  founder  of  Pakistan],  fought  for  a  representative  democracy.  India IS democracy’, he emphasizes. After which he proudly points out that it is the world’s largest democracy, in which, from day one, all citizens – men and women – were qualified to  vote.

‘Today,  India  has  no  less  than  1.5  million  women  who  have  been  elected  to  the  village councils or panchayats. This is more than the total number of women elected in the rest of  the  world  put  together.’  Yet,  in  the  Lok  Sabha,  the  Lower  House  of  Parliament  which  will  now be elected, only 10 per cent of the elected members are female.

The state  legislatures  are  also  elected  every  five  years,  but  those  elections  only  rarely  coincide with the national elections. The President is not elected directly by the people, but  by members of the two Houses in the national parliament, and the legislative chambers of  the states.

The current President, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, was in  sworn in in August 2012 for a term of  five years. Every state, meanwhile, has a Governor, who is not elected but appointed. They  constitute the link between the national government on the one hand and the governments  and legislatures of the states on the other.

Thus,  the  elections  from  7  April  until  12  May  will,  first  and  foremost,  provide  543  new  members to the Lok Sabha. Subsequently, the President can designate 2 additional members  to represent the Anglo-Indian community. The Rajya Sabha, i.e. the Council of States (or the  Upper House of the Parliament of India), is composed of representatives of the states and  has 250 seats.  
After the declaration of the results of the elections – which will take place on 16 May – the  President  will  invite  the  largest  party  or  the  coalition  with  the  most  seats  to  form  a  government.  Probably,  the  first  estimates  will  be  published  after  12  May,  when  the  last  polling is over and the embargo on exit polls and opinion polls concerning the actual voting  behaviour expires.

Diversity and decentralisation

In  Europe,  there  is  an  increasing  tendency  to  speak  about  ‘super-diversity’  in  order  to  describe   a   society   characterized   by   growing   ethnic   and   cultural   diversity.   The   Indian  ambassador  spontaneously  uses  the  term  ‘mega-diverse’  to  describe  his  country.

To  begin  with, the issue of linguistic diversity, a topic Belgians know about from their own experience:  in  India,  Hindi  is  the  official  national  language  of  the  Indian  government,  and  English  is formally  recognized  as  administrative  language  (i.e.  as  a  ‘subsidiary  official  language’).  In  addition, there are 22 officially recognized languages used in the respective states, besides hundreds of local languages.

Currently,  India  has  28  states  and  7  union  territories,  but  the  southern  state  of  Andhra  Pradesh is being split in two parts, so that soon, Telangana and Seemandhra will come into  being. Between 1947 and today, on several occasions, additional states have been created. Haryana was cut out of Punjab; Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand emerged from Madhya Pradesh  and Bihar respectively; Andhra Pradesh was extracted from Madras; Mizoram has its origins  in Assam…

The  states  are  becoming  more  important,  which  is  normal,  says  Ambassador  Puri:  ‘People  want to bring government closer to their lives and their community.’ This could give rise to  the deceptive idea that the states in India are comparable to the (geographical) regions and  (linguistic)   communities   in   Belgium,   but   Uttar   Pradesh,   for   example,   has   200   million  inhabitants. Maharashtra has 112 million.

Often these states are based on traditional realities, says the Ambassador, since India has a history of thousands of years. Towards the end of the British period, itcontained more than 500 princely states, all of them having considerable autonomy and their own traditions.

‘The notion  of  federalism  is  gaining  importance  and  in  the  future  the  states  will  accordingly demand more regional power. Nevertheless, this evolution at the same time goes together with  an  increasing  significance  of  the  federation,  i.e.  of  the  nation  state  that  India  has become during the past seven decades’.

The Ambassador is doing his job: he is selling the idea of a nation in which unity in diversity is experienced   as   enrichment   by   everyone.   However,   there   have   also   been   separatist movements in India, amongst others in Punjab, in the northeast, in Kashmir. Has the Indian state  learned  from  these  movements  and  rebellions?

‘The  most  important  lesson  to  be drawn is that the state has to be inclusive, that each individual Indian and each community must have the feeling that they benefit from being part of the Union.’

As a matter of fact, the local level – organized in panchayats in rural areas and in municipal councils in towns or cities – receives more and more responsibilities and competences. The budget for this local level comes from the central government or from the state government.

These are all ways to bring government closer to the citizens, and to make sure that those who are elected remain accountable to the electorate.

The issue of transparency and the notion of accountability towards voters are receiving a lot of  attention  in  India.  Actually,  the  movement  against  corruption  which  unremittingly  kept knocking on the same nail during the past years, often with media-sensitive actions such as the hunger strike by Anna Hazare, has, in the meanwhile, itself become a successful political party.

Coalition politics and power balances

One of the consequences of the decentralization of power is the rise of regional parties. As a  result, the big national parties, Congress or BJP,can no longer hope to gather enough votes to form a government on their own.

The current government  was  led  by  Congress,  but  contained  about  twenty  parties  in  a coalition called  the United  Progressive  Alliance  (UPA).  Similarly,  the BJP  is embedded  in  a  large  coalition  called  the  National  Democratic  Alliance  (NDA). During  the build-up  to  the  elections of 2014, there has also been an attempt to establish a Third Front-coalition some left-wing and big regional parties, but that front does notparties, but that front does not seem to get off the groundseem to get off the ground.

The transition from a rather British  and  binary  political landscape  towards  a landscape  of fragmented coalitions is a kind of natural evolution, reasons the Ambassador. It is the Indian  way  to  create  the  necessary  balances between  the  centre  and the the  regions.  In  addition,  it renders the discussions and differences of opinion about the direction in which the country should be moving much more visible.

‘In the early years, the debate was mainly held within the Congress party, now it takes place between a broad range of parties.’ Every democracy is looking for ways to enable checks and  balances,  he  adds,  even  in  presidential systems such  as  the  US  and France, where  the  ‘coalition’  often takes  the shape  of  cohabitation  or  shared  power  between  president  and and  parliament.

Development is the priority

‘Development remains the biggest challenge for India’, says Ambassador Puri. During the last decades, the Indian economy has experienced an explosive growth, at this stage being one of  the  largest  economies  in  the  world.  Yet,  with  an  average  income  of  1,500  dollars  per capita,  India  is  still  a  poor  country,  each  year  adding  on  one  ‘Australia’,  i.e.  more  than  20 million inhabitants. Providing education and employment for all the youth is a huge challenge for policymakers.’

‘On the social level, too, inclusion must be the first task of the government, if only because it ensures  the  cohesion  of  the  nation.  But  also  from  an  economic  point  of  view,  a  better distribution of growth is much more desirable than the concentration of wealth in the hands of some. After all, a distribution of prosperity also meansa distribution of purchasing power.’

When  I  object  that  the  Indian  state  has  failed  to  transform the  years  of  high  economic growth into broad social progress, Ambassador Puri  responds that – except for China – no country  apart  from  India  has  ever  pulled  so  many  people  out  of  poverty.  So  failure  is absolutely  out  of  the  question,  he  says.

Even  the  simple  fact  that  India  has  600  million mobile  phone  users  is  quite  telling,  he  argues.  ‘It  is  precisely  this  kind  of  progress  which evokes  higher  expectations  among  people,  which  is  good,  because  expectations  make people ambitious, and that is what we need.’ 
The discussion about income inequality will be tack led in various articles within this, yet I wanted to know whether Ambassador Puri thinks that education has fulfilled its social task – because research has shown that only three-quarters of enrolled pupils actually go to school, and that at least ten per cent of the teachers do not show up on any given day. Furthermore, the actual  numeracy,  reading  and  general  knowledge  skills  of  the  pupils  are  much  lower  than those foreseen in the self-prescribed curriculum.

‘It  is  absolutely  correct  that  good  education  should  be  the  first  and  most  important investment in the future of all these children and youngsters. And the government has done something about it.’

‘First by means of a campaign to get everyone into primary school, then with a campaign to get girls to school, and currently we are looking at ways to provide good education for children with disabilities or for children in special circumstances. Ninety six per cent of the children are now registered as pupils in school. The challenge at present is indeed to improve the educational results.’

Corruption and violence against women

The  priority  that should  be  given  to  development by  the  new  government,  whatever  the political colour of the biggest party, brings us back to the importance of the battle against corruption. ‘A country as poor as India simply cannot afford the losses caused by corruption’, says  Puri.  Therefore,  all  parties  speak  out  against  corruption,  he claims.This  sounds  very optimistic  indeed  in  a  country  where  it  is  especially  politics,  at  all  levels, which  is  so  well-known for its corrupt customs. Yet, at least itdoes show that the topic is high on the agenda.

Those  who  follow  India  from  a  distance  and  via  the  media  have  also  noticedthe  massive attention for a number of notable rapecases last year, in Delhi, Mumbai and West Bengal. Whether or not this theme will play an important role in the elections, Puri does not know, as the consensus on this topic perhaps has become too large by now.

As an Indian, he would in  fact  like  to  make  a  statement  here:  ‘The  only  answer  to  this  violence  against  women  is zero  tolerance.  Women  have  equal  rights  and  India  needs  their  contribution.  This  is  only possible  if  the  violence  against  them  stops.  That  is  why  it  was  so  good  that  the  public massively  responded,  that  the  courts  have  intervened  immediately,  and  that  politics  has swiftly followed suitby voting for stricter laws and enabling jurisdiction. ’

Far away stuff

All  around  the  world  elections  are  about  the  question  of  how  the  government  can  ensure prosperity and well-being. Foreign relations do not carry much weight, says Puri: ‘How many Belgians will let their choice on 25 May depend on the Belgian or European viewpoint on the crisis in Ukraine?’ Besides, according to him, there exists a relatively large consensus in India on  the  major  themes  in  international  relations.

‘Everyone  agrees  that  India  should  play  a bigger  role  in  the  international  community,  especially  as  a  permanent  member  of  the  UN Security  Council;  that  the  international  system  should  offer  India  more  opportunities  to improve  the  quality  of  life  of  its  populace;  and  that  terrorism  –  also  in  its  international dimensions – should be combatted.’

Is  there  also  a  consensus  on  relations  with  neighbour  and  arch-enemy  Pakistan?  ‘Perhaps you can rewrite history, but geography is inescapable. Cooperation between both countries would be advantageous to all. That is why it is of the utmost importance that Pakistan stops setting up and supporting terrorist groups, and that it brings an end to a policy which gives these groups the space to locate and organize themselves on Pakistani territory.’

When  I  refer  to  the  recent  interview  that  MO*  had  with  the  Pakistani  Minister  of  Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, in which he says that Pakistan ‘will from now on fully engage in a policy of non-intervention and peaceful neighbourliness’, Puri confines himself to a short but telling reply: ‘Non-intervention is an absolute precondition in order for the world to function.’