India´s Vibrant Democracy

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Since May this year, when I started writing this blog, I have started appreciating the strength of Indian democracy. As I followed the unraveling of the national elections, and thereafter the elections in various states of our country, I became acutely aware of the power of Indian voters and their ability to choose their own destiny in a peaceful and democratic manner. Clichés like ‘ballot not bullet’ appear less clichéd and Indian democracy despite all its ‘warts’ stands out like a beacon in an area where our neighbors still struggle to institutionalize it and give it permanency.

Defining Elections

Indian politics experienced many ups and down this year. Many believe that the national elections of 2014 have been the most ‘defining elections’ since the elections of 1977, when the Congress party lost at the national level for the first time after India gained independence in 1947.  After two decades, a single party, i.e. the BJP, got a clear-cut majority in the general elections and the results were interpreted as the decisive vote of an ‘aspirational’ India, which wanted growth, development and jobs rather than platitudes which it had been fed for decades.  After the BJP was elected to power it was anticipated that PM Modi’s policies would improve the socio-economic and political conditions of India. In view of its strident and often polarizing campaign there was also a question as to how the government would accommodate the interest of all the different communities and states in India.

Elections in Jammu and Kashmir

Jammu and Kashmir has been a disturbed and disputed region since independence.  It has external as well as internal problems because of the border dispute with Pakistan and a separatist movement within the state. India has had to fight three wars with Pakistan over J&K and faces militancy. While the Indian government and the people of J&K continue to favour the democratic process of elections, the separatists attempt to sabotage this through terror attacks. The instability in the state has also impacted on its economic development adding to the backwardness of the state. Hence, the ongoing elections in J&K this month are again a fight between the might of the ballot over the muzzle of the gun.  The high voter turnout in the polls has once again indicated the desire of the people to participate in the democratic process, notwithstanding the call for a poll boycott by the separatists. According to an article in the Hindu, ‘Jammu and Kashmir recorded 49 per cent polling across 18 constituencies on Sunday, largely in defiance of the boycott call by separatists.’[1] Writing on the record turnout in the elections, an article in the NDTV states,

‘With long queues and brisk polling through the day, Jammu and Kashmir today recorded a 71.28 per cent voter turnout in the first phase of Assembly elections, its highest in 25 years. Many people were still waiting to vote beyond the scheduled close of polling at 4 pm.[2]

While all Chief Ministers have a great responsibility for administering their states, the Chief Minister of J&K has an even greater responsibility for addressing the challenges of his state.  An article in the Economist says, about the current Chief Minister of the state, that,

“The historically stronger family is the Abdullah dynasty and its National Conference. It will be walloped this month. Omar Abdullah, its genial third-generation incarnation as chief minister, has proved out of touch, his government mostly beyond his control. Violent clashes between youths and police each summer from 2008 to 2010 left him looking powerless; in 2010 alone police killed over 110 youngsters. Worsening corruption only deepened the public’s dismay at Mr Abdullah.”[3]

Hence these elections will play a major role in determining whether the people select an effective government, which can address these challenges faced by the state. The state has alternated between the dynastic families of the Abdullahs and the Muftis who have ruled it for many decades. The BJP which has not been even a marginal player in J&K is seeing an opening, albeit small, for itself.  An article in the Economic Times says about BJP’s policy in Kashmir that,

“Promising to initiate the process of "just and honourable" re-settlement of Kashmiri Pandits, BJP today released its 'vision document' aiming to make Jammu and Kashmir a peaceful and progressive state through "holistic" development. "Our vision is to make the state of Jammu and Kashmir a peaceful, progressive and developed state of the Union of India through holistic and inclusive development of all the three regions including Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh," party MP and state in-charge Avinash Rai Khanna told reporters here today while releasing party's 'vision document'. The party has promised to initiate the process of "just and honourable" re-settlement of the displaced members of the Kashmiri Pandit community in Kashmir valley with security and dignity.”[4]

India’s secularism

With a population of around 1.2 billion out of which about 20 percent are from the minority community, a major challenge, which the government faces, is to ensure that the interests of the different minority communities are accommodated. Foreseeing the problems arising from this, the framers of the Indian Constitution made India a secular state and gave a number of rights to the minorities. The challenge before the BJP, therefore, is to synthesize its right wing ideology, which propagates ‘hindutva’; an ideology, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘that sought to define Indian culture in terms of Hindu values’, with the needs of the minorities in a manner that the social fabric and cohesion of the country remains intact.   Some of the affiliated organizations of the BJP like the RSS, VHP etc have, however, taken a more radical stance with news of ‘forced’ conversions appearing in the media. Recently around 200 people in UP are believed to have been converted to Hinduism by the RSS (a political organization promoting ‘hindutva’). After this incident an ‘Anti Conversion Bill’ has been proposed in the Parliament, by Venkiah Naidu (Union Parliamentry Affairs Minister). However, leading social scientists have expressed concern at the efficacy of such laws and their potential of being misused. According to Free Press Journal,

“Anti – Conversion laws should be discussed in length and not passed in a hurry to gain political mileage or in the enlightenment of recent events that have taken place in the country. One must also make sure that no religious community comes at a disadvantage due to this law as it can indirectly hamper the number of followers of one religious group and thereby defeat the purpose of maintaining the number of followers of any religion. It could also create tensions among other communities and give a maligning image to a community that has got the advantage.”[5]

 

Growth, Development and Indian Economy

Indian economy had witnessed contraction and decline in the second tenure of the previous government. This had been one of the major reasons for the defeat of the previous government and the electoral victory of the BJP. Hence the BJP government has a huge responsibility for stabilizing the economic condition of the country. Narendra Modi through his policies and excellent administration had tremendously improved Gujarat’s economy and this track record had been a harbinger for ‘better days are coming’, a phrase coined by the BJP in its election campaign. The jury is out on this though one must state that this is still work in progress. An article in the Live Mint has critiqued Modi’s policies by saying that,

“There have been two sets of criticism of Modi over these past few months. Both deserve attention. First, some of his supporters argue that these administrative decisions fall short of the sort of radical structural reforms that India needs if it is to create the conditions for the next round of high economic growth. Second, his detractors say that these are mere extensions of the administrative agenda of the previous government as well as a far cry from the big alliterative promises that Modi made to woo voters. In a neat role reversal, former finance minister P. Chidambaram said at a function last week that bold decisions need to be taken while current finance minister Arun Jaitley explained that reforms are the art of the possible.”[6]

Until now the government has been only partially successful in the country’s economic development and there is still a long list of challenges which the government has to address. While a major initiative is by strategizing and implementing a strong economic policy, social cohesion and development of the minority communities are equally important. Only then can we ensure an all round and holistic development for the nation as a whole.

 

[1] The Hindu, “Voters Defy Poll Boycott in the Valley”, December 5th 2014, The Hindu

[2] NDTV, “ Jammu and Kashmir Has Record Voter Turnout: 10 Developments”, November 25th 2014, NDTV

[3] The Economist, “Modi’s Northern Light”, December 13th 2014, The Economist 

[4] The Economic Times, “BJP releases ‘ vision document’ for peaceful, developed Jammu and Kashmir”, November 27th 2014, The Economic Times

[5] Abhishek Vissapragada, “ Anti-Conversion Laws: Helpful or Detrimental?”,  December 12th 2014, Free Press Journal

[6] Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, “ All Eyes on Economic Reforms Agenda of Narendra  Modi Government”,  November 11th 2014, Live Mint

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