Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Opinion | Why can’t Indian democracy move beyond slogans?

Populist slogans may have benefited leaders but did little for the country

India has seen 16 general elections in 72 years of independence. Despite this, the question still remains as to whether our democracy is moving in the right direction?

When the first general election after independence took place in 1951-52, India was different. Although Jawaharlal Nehru considered himself the head of Indian democracy, the reality is that minor kings, riyasats and feudal landlords were still quite influential. In that election, only 173 million voters had registered. Of them, 44.87% voted. At the time, 53 political parties were in the fray for 489 seats and a total of 1,874 candidates contested the elections. Those days, India was poor and its annual per capita income was 7,651 and literacy rate was 18.33%.

In those elections, the Congress won 364 out of 489 seats, formed the government and Nehru abolished the zamindari system that year itself. It felt at the time that Indian democracy would, sooner or later achieve its proper form and structure because the future governments would be elected by the people and for the people, in the real sense of the word. Our political leaders may not have realised then that we are getting rid of the royalty who would soon be replaced by a new set of demagogues who would take over our politics. Today, there is no part of this country which is untouched by the influence of political families.

A lot of water has flown under the bridge since then. With the increase in population, India’s income has also grown. If we recall the 2014 general elections, there were 834 million registered voters, of which 66.44% voted. A total of 464 parties and 8,251 candidates contested for 543 seats. The literacy rate too touched 74.04%. The annual per capita income was more than 1 lakh. The current elections will definitely break this record and this is the stage that worries me. We can break the records of the elections but we seem unable to find solutions to people’s problems.

I also have something to say to people who are lamenting the seven-phase elections—the first elections took place in 68 phases and it took four months to complete. The Congress won 364 seats while in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) succeeded in getting a majority by winning 282 seats. If you look at the elections since 1957 till today, whether they were majority governments or coalition ones or whether they were affected by the influence of a particular personality, all these elections were fought on slogans rather than on facts.

Nehru gave the slogan of “Aaraam Haraam Hai" (rest is not allowed). His successor whose tenure was all too short, Lal Bahadur Shastri, gave an impassioned and high-spirited slogan during the India-Pakistan war of 1965: “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan" (Hail the soldier, Hail the farmer). In 1971, Indira Gandhi contested the elections with the slogan “Garibi Hatao" (remove poverty) And in 1977, we heard the echo of “Indira Hatao, Desh Bachao" (remove Indira, save the country). On 31 October 1984, Gandhi was assassinated and during the elections after her death, the Congress coined a moving slogan “Jab tak suraj-chand rahega, Indira tera naam rahega" (Your name, Indira, will be as immortal as the Sun and the Moon). And Rajiv Gandhi won a massive majority with 404 seats and became head of the country. Later in 1996, the BJP played up the disappointment prevalent among the people and used the slogan “Sabko dekha baari-baari, abki baari Atal Bihari" (You have seen the rest turn by turn, now give Atal Bihari a chance) The last elections were fought and won by Modi on the slogan: “Achhe din aane waale hain" (Good days are coming). This time around, Modi and his supporters are chanting “Modi hai to mumkin hai" (If Modi is there, then it’s possible.) Here, a question arises, how much good did these election-winning slogans do for the country?

If we start discussing these depressing situations, then it would take a lot more than this column to do so. It is true that these populist slogans may have benefited leaders and coalitions but unfortunately did little for the country, which is still swinging between hope and despair. Now, when we are about to vote for the 17th Lok Sabha, we should definitely pay attention to this—should a country which has about 80% literacy be content with a whole lot of seemingly attractive slogans or should it not insist on substantial progress on the ground?

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekarkahin