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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Death of democracy: Here are 5 issues affecting India’s voting system

So another major win for the BJP. India’s ruling party and its allies won a majority of seats in a tight race for power in the state of Bihar, according to results early Wednesday, in the first major election in the country since the coronavirus pandemic began. In a post on Twitter near midnight, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that the BJP and its coalition partners had triumphed, saying, “Democracy has once again won in Bihar.” Votes were still being counted for a last few seats, but by early Wednesday, the B.J.P. and its allies had secured more than enough seats for a majority, and a clear path to forming a state government.

India democracy
Photo: Twitter

The result was a stunning upset in an election in which exit polls heavily favored the opposition parties, and in which Mr. Modi personally campaigned to try to reverse disappointments for his party in recent months. So this win means, the Modi-led BJP government is still a favourite for voters despite historic low GDP, India’s second-worst status in terms of Covid-19 worldwide, suppression of free speech, opinion and rising unemployment among several other drawbacks. Are the Indian voters really favouring the NDA government or it is just a reflection of the poor health of our democracy? We shall discuss this in this article today.

Death of democracy: Here are 5 issues affecting India’s voting system

1. Weak opposition

It needs no further elaboration that the Congress is witnessing its darkest time ever in Indian politics and as an Opposition, it is as weak as ever. The party itself doesn’t trust its young leader Rahul Gandhi and the reasons behind it are manifold. The 2019 Lok Sabha election result has been decisive. Voters have not just voted Modi back to power, they have resoundingly rejected Rahul Gandhi. Modi clearly benefited from making the election a presidential contest against Gandhi. Many expected the Congress to at least double its seats, increase its vote-share a bit, if not cross 100. Correspondingly, the BJP was widely expected to shed at least a few seats. Such a result would have given us a sense of incremental progress in the Congress party’s fortunes. The Congress likes to think its eventual return to power is almost inevitable. Incremental progress would have bolstered the case. Instead, the Congress has remained almost where it was in 2014. In fact, it has actually lost seats and vote-share in the Hindi heartland. Rahul Gandhi lost his own family seat of Amethi.

The Congress vote share increased very marginally. From 19.3 per cent to just 19.5 per cent. Its seats increased from 44 to just 52. The writing on the wall is unambiguous — India has rejected Rahul Gandhi. The dislike for Rahul Gandhi is so strong that people prefer Modi even if can’t create jobs. The revulsion is not so much for the Congress but for Gandhi.

2. EVM tampering claims

The devices that India relies on to conduct elections, Electronic Voting Machines, have been in the news over the last few years, as politicians and activists have raised questions about whether they are at risk of being tampered with. With counting of votes set to take place on Thursday, the issue has dominated the news cycle, particularly with fresh allegations that EVMs are being transported without appropriate security.

The simple answer is yes, because any machine can be hacked. But it would be very difficult. As this article explains in detail, since EVMs are not networked, altering their functioning would require access to the machines themselves. That means that entities attempting to hack an EVM cannot use remote access, such as through the internet, and would need physical access to the machines themselves or their cables, while going unnoticed by (or in collusion with) authorities or other party agents. With the BJP’s win in recently held Bihar polls and the NDA reversing the early morning trend, some Twitter users seem to be rather quick in blaming EVM for the BJP-led NDA gaining the lead. “Prediction for today. MGB wins= Democracy wins. NDA wins= EVM fraud,” came a sarcastic tweet from Anuj Dhar, an author.

3. ‘Biased’ Election Commission

Similarly, the bias against EC is also nothing new. Just ahead of the 2019 general election which the BJP won with record margin, the Election Commission of India (ECI) said it is swamped with hundreds of thousands of such questions and accusations of violation of election rules, known as the model code of conduct. Many are coming via ever expanding social media. “The commission will only move when there is sufficient material,” said Sandeep Saxena, a deputy election commissioner, to Reuters, adding that social media and mobile phones often tell people of things immediately, which it takes the panel time to learn. “We normally ask our own field functionaries,” he said. “It takes 12 hours or so to establish, only then we go for action.”

Opposition parties have always accused the panel of being biased in favour of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which they say gives Modi an unfair advantage in the election. There is even a threat to jail commission officials if Modi is ousted. The BJP denies special treatment from the panel, an autonomous constitutional body tasked with the smooth conduct of the world’s biggest democratic exercise with as many as 900 million eligible voters.

4. Lack of new leadership

Leadership matters. India’s ruling coalition seems very well placed to retain its position. Its main constituent, the BJP, has a relatively robust organisation and national presence, and the government it has led has done enough to compare favourably to its predecessor in perceived economic performance. It also has a leader with experience and credibility, nationally and internationally. There are subnational political leaders among the Opposition, of course, but they lead political parties that are firmly regional, and their national profiles tend to be limited. The main Opposition party, the Congress, is, of course, led by someone whose main qualification is based on genealogy, and it is not very clear what the party he leads stands for.

The centralising tendencies of the current ruling coalition could hold India back economically, if it is returned to power in the national election. It would be ironic if a national leadership deficit, depriving India’s voters of a robust choice in the general election, leads to a stifling of leadership and political competition at the subnational level. There are separate worries about suppression of cultural diversity and weakening of national government institutions that provide checks and balances. All of this makes it sad that dynastic ambitions have attenuated democratic options in India’s upcoming election.

5. Ignorant and unaware voters

A video in which young Indians on the streets are asked about the ‘rashtrapati’ of Madhya Pradesh and the ‘pradhan mantri’ of Delhi to gauge their political awareness recently went viral. Another video in which young Indians on the streets are asked about the ‘rashtrapati’ of Madhya Pradesh and the ‘pradhan mantri’ of Delhi to gauge their political awareness recently went viral. Forget getting the names of political leaders right, they were blithely unaware of what the words ‘rashtrapati’ and ‘pradhan mantri’ mean—what is more, not a single person pointed out that Indian states are headed by a ‘mukhyamantri’ (chief minister).

The majority of young urban voter suffers from an affliction called ‘information addiction’. With the advent of Google and the mobile phone, virtually a surgical attachment to our hands, suddenly everyone started overdosing on information without necessarily gaining any knowledge. When the image of a freshly laid road in Indonesia is shared on Twitter as an example of ‘infrastructural push’ in a ‘distant village’ in India by a fan of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the information addict accepts it happily, experiences ‘a hit of bhakti’ and passes the misinformation-infected syringe as it were on to thousands of others over social media and/or WhatsApp. Apart from these, there are issues of fake news flourishing across the world.

We believe all these above reasons are significantly responsible for India’s poor show in what we call a healthy democratic election system. As a country and electorate, we must fix these issues if we want to get a fair, independent and able party to win our precious votes.

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