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Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Opinion | Is India making the world unhappy?

It is fair to ask, in the middle of an ill-tempered general election in India, whether there’s a relationship between happiness and voting

It is now a matter of general belief around the world that elections in India resemble its great festivals. There’s colour, joy and noise as it barrels along 29 states and more than a million polling booths catering to an electorate of nearly 900 million. Granted, words are exchanged and things said now and then; but on the whole, it’s a pretty impressive show.

But could this soaring celebration of democracy be hiding a mountain of sorrow? It may appear to be a bit churlish to inject this note of dejection when one ought to be marvelling at the greatest democratic spectacle on the planet, but there’s some truth to the melancholy proposition. The latest world happiness index, a survey that is gaining increasing media play, ranks India a lowly 140 out of the 156 nations surveyed—seven spots down from 2018.

Worryingly, the report says, “When you factor in population growth, world happiness has fallen in recent years, driven by the sustained downward trend in India." The five largest drops since 2005-08 were in Yemen, India, Syria, Botswana and Venezuela, said the report, produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

It is fair to ask, in the middle of an ill-tempered general election in India, whether there’s a relationship between happiness and voting.

To an extent this is clear in the sense of what Granny told us: if you are surly, unhappy or depressed, sit out the election. Don’t join the queue.

If you are in Kashmir, and have to face searches on the way to school, college, work or home, you will be unhappy. If you are a farmer struggling to repay debts accumulated from back-to-back drought years, or a Muslim who has to make adjustments to the lifestyle (clothing, diet, etc.,) or a young girl barred from going out to the park with her boyfriend in some parts of the country, if you are having to pay a bribe at every step of getting your pension papers in order, so will you.

Equally, you might just decide that enough’s enough and head out to vote with your feet. That relationship—between happiness and voting—appears unclear. However, anger or dissatisfaction was clearly a factor with the election of Donald Trump in the US and the Brexit vote for Britain to leave the European Union.

And what’s the psychological relationship between voters, politicians and democracy? If a leader whips up popular anger, will we rush out to vote in anger? Or if another claims to have built (or promises to build) a society of calm, peace and happiness, will we saunter up to the polling booth, whistling? From rural China to the US and UK, surveys show a positive relationship between life satisfaction and turnout in elections.

What makes you vote for the incumbent—in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party? One long-held assumption is that if the economy is doing well, the government will be re-elected, and the way to prove an economy on the uptick is by showing gross domestic product (GDP) numbers. However, in India, the methodology for calculating (or extrapolating) the total sum of goods and services that make up the economy has come under a cloud.

While ring-fencing and protecting data remains a hot issue in India, is the government perhaps missing a trick by emphasizing GDP growth over the nation’s state of happiness? It is instructive to note that British economist John Maynard Keynes, one of the two men credited with inventing the GDP (the other was Russian-born American economist Simon Kuznets), himself took a philosophical view of the uses of economic growth.

“He was an apostle of growth not for its own sake but only as a means to leisure and civilized living," says Keynes’s biographer, the economic historian Robert Skidelsky.

This grand objective—happiness to the rest of us—runs up against GDP’s evil sister, uncontrolled accumulation of material goods. The more we consume, the higher the GDP numbers; and the higher the GDP numbers, the more we consume.

Does high consumption equal happiness equal chances of re-election? Anybody who has lived through the material shortages of India of the pre-independence years—even up to the 1970s—will scarcely need persuading that they are happier today for the plentiful supply of necessities as well as luxuries. But does it add up to a happier country? Evidently not, and exactly why not is what concerns economists more and more.

The answers may lie in how you view a happier life: if Indians are eating more with famines wiped out, are they eating better? If Indians are living longer because of easier access to cheap drugs, are their lives also more productive? If smartphones and service-driven modern transport, including Metro rail and ride-hailing cabs, have made moving around easier, are we all walking less? If modern medicine has allowed Indians to combat certain infectious diseases—smallpox, a killer, has been wiped out, and TB may be on its way out—haven’t other killers taken their place, particularly those resulting from a sedentary lifestyle?

The alternative to an economic model based on greed and status-driven consumption, according to Skidelsky, lies in viewing scarcity in relation to needs rather than wants. The insatiable hunger to accumulate—whether scissors, money or homes—is not normal, he points out. Recall Imelda’s shoes: at least 1,220 pairs were left behind when she and her husband, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, were driven out of the Philippines in 1986 by a popular revolt.

The measures of what makes for happiness are many: Skidelsky’s “good life" is made up of “health, respect, friendship, leisure, and so on". Former US president Herbert Hoover promised voters “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage". India’s quiet neighbour Bhutan’s exhaustive list comprises: psychological well-being, health, time use, education, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

Finally, there’s this to consider, too: ever-rising consumption, led by western nations, is bringing the apocalypse of climate change closer to our doorsteps with each passing day. That definitely portends unhappiness for the world. Yet, strangely, that’s one thing no one is talking about in the Indian elections.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1.

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