In the next few hours the first poll booths will be thrown open to voters in Assam—fitting, considering that the sun rises first over India in the east. Over the next five weeks 814.5 million people—almost three times the population of the US, the oldest democracy in the world—will cast their votes to elect the 16th Lok Sabha. Another staggering statistic is that 52% of this electorate is young, aged between 18 and 40 years.
It is by far the largest exercise of its kind and a source of inspiration to other fledgling democracies, like Afghanistan that went to polls on Saturday despite the spectre of terrorist-sponsored violence. It’s one of those moments which make me proud to be an Indian.
More importantly, it is a journey—uninterrupted with the exception of the two years of Emergency—that has entered its sixth decade. It’s not an easy task. In the first general election held in 1951, people had to be coached on how to vote; guess that is what 200 years of colonial rule does to you. Worse, illiteracy was over 80% and the country was ravaged by poverty. Yet, our founding fathers were unperturbed, their faith in democracy unshakeable. Through the Constitution of India, they empowered every citizen, regardless of gender, caste or creed to vote (The US would see universal franchise only 15 years later. All African-Americans were allowed to vote without restrictions only after 1965).
Today, as the country goes to polls, India stands fundamentally transformed. Its illiteracy levels are down to 25%, poverty levels at 22% (Hence, it sounds odd when Western publications begin their reporting of Indian elections with the cliché about illiterates and poor lining up to vote) and the size of the economy is now nearly $2 trillion. But the stakes before the electorate are as much, if not more.
This is because, unlike in 1951, today most people have the means to dream or aspire for a materially better life; then it was more about electing independent India’s first government. But the means to realize these dreams are not so easily accessible, leading to the creation of an aspiration deficit; a nightmare for any incumbent, more so the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which in the past five years has been but an observer as the economy unravelled.
The economic success that has transformed India in the past three decades has been disproportionately shared, so visible in the consumption habits of the top one percentile. Some mitigation did take place with UPA pursuing its entitlement regime for rural jobs, education and, more recently, food security, one of the reasons why poverty declined to its historic low. But this is not sustainable. It is dependent upon the economy continuing to enjoy the fiscal cushion to fund such large expenditure. In other words, its withdrawal would push people back into poverty.
But what has changed is that the economically disenfranchised have started finding a political voice. They have in the past few years articulated, sporadically though, across the country in face-offs between the haves and the have-nots. Whether it be the resistance to mining in Niyamgiri in Odisha, the setting up of a nuclear power plant in Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu or the land acquisition in Singur in West Bengal to set up the Tata’s small car project, confrontation was the norm.
Then in the elections to the Delhi assembly, the Aam Aadmi Party rode the wave of people’s anger against corruption in public office and the tolerance of organized parties to this practice. Not only did its entry overcome the seemingly insurmountable entry barriers in Indian politics, it redefined confrontation through democratic politics.
The fact that this election takes place in this backdrop makes it significant. There is almost zero tolerance among the electorate. Realizing the aspirations of the entire population is not going to be easy, given that people are restless, and will often entail a trade-off—somewhat similar to making the choice between environment and development, equity and growth, and so on.
This election is not so much about voting out a government or voting in a new regime. It is about electing a political formation that can negotiate or mediate these conflicts. The next government will lay the foundation for the growth trajectory of the next few decades that will address the aspirations of all citizens in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner.
So people of India go out and vote and, if none of the contestants make the cut, vote Nota (none of the above).
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com