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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Here are 6 things India can learn from the US over its elections

So the US 2020 elections are finally over. Albeit the American democracy at work has been quite a spectacle for the rest of the world. According to the voters, in the past four years of the Trump administration creating havoc in every aspect of government, America’s democratic institutions and social fabric were indeed in deep crisis. So they called in the change. Like all far-right rulers, Trump’s first task was to bring fault lines to the surface and then exploit them for electoral benefit. To watch the system push back in this moment of change is remarkable. But what about India? This year’s US elections give us a lot of lessons. Do we learn anything?

The background

It’s true that there was a time when we did improve from our earlier spotless record of open rigging, falsification of voters’ lists, removal of names and disappearance of votes. Yes, the electronic voting machines did seem at one time to be magically non-corrupt. But too many questions have been raised since 2014 and too many discrepancies shrugged off, for anyone to have full confidence in our EVMs anymore. Besides, it was clear from day one and explained to anyone interested that this US presidential election’s counting was going to be problematic because of Covid 19 and the high number of postal ballots. That is precisely why President Donald Trump tried to make postal ballots illegitimate and forced Republican supporters to go out and vote. He’s been screaming about this for days because he knew it would go against him. But you know our intelligentsia. Too clever by half. A few valid questions in this context: with our superior system, why don’t we start counting the second polling ends? Wouldn’t that make tampering difficult? Why have staggered voting schedules? If America can manage to count immediately and produce results quite fast, with manual counting, for most presidential elections, why can’t we do that with state elections at least?

Here are 6 things India can learn from the US over its elections

1. Indian media should learn to maintain neutrality, the way US media did on D-Day

If that was not bad enough, how about Indian television anchors full of admiration for American broadcast networks ABC, NBC and CBS for cutting away from President Trump’s news conference where he alleged fraud in the counting process. The networks said that the president was lying without providing any proof and thus they could not air his false claims. Other news channels did not break away but either called him out on his lies or ran on-screen texts saying there was no evidence for what the president was saying.

This is the President of the United States and the US media. Any journalist should be full of admiration for this courage. But not Indian TV anchors. No one category of “journalists” has been more supplicating and spineless before the office of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi than India’s TV anchors. Large sections of the American media have been at loggerheads with the White House from day one. By contrast, Indian “news” channels have been wilful and happy participants in the innumerable lies told to the Indian people by the Modi Government. The absolutely bravest angle these channels can take is to hide behind the Opposition: “Y or X party has questioned the government”. Contrast that to anchor Anderson Cooper of CNN likening Trump to an “obese turtle on his back, flailing in the hot sun realizing his time was over”.

When it comes to the Modi government and the BJP, journalists in India have disgraced our profession in every possible way and it is largely because of Indian television. That is why this hypocritical “admiration” grates. What stops them from doing some real journalism instead of taking selfies with Modi? Why allow Mohan Bhagwat of the RSS free airtime? Why give prominence to Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s electioneering visits to Bengal and not question him on his disappearance from the public eye, his health and his role in the miserable state of the nation? Why show us this nonsense of Modi posing with peacocks while large numbers of Indians grapple with Covid?

No democracy can function without a free, fearless and frank press, or free mass media. We see this in America. And we must actually weep as we go back to watching the bogus drama over TV anchor Arnab Goswami screaming about police brutality in Maharashtra over a small scratch on his arm. But we ignore 83-year-old social activist Father Stan Swamy arrested by the National Investigating Agency and jailed in Taloja. He has Parkinson’s and has requested a sipper to drink water. The prosecution has been given 20 days to respond. Let that sink in while we wallow in our superiority.

2. The value of mail-in ballots, transparent counting

The delay in declaring the US election verdict and the partisan bickering around it have led some in India to suggest that India’s election process is superior. This is a matter of opinion and debate. But it is worth noting that a large part of the delay in the latest US election is a result of the unprecedented numbers of absentee and mail-in ballots. When it comes to accommodating the votes of those who can’t make it to the booth on polling day, India has more to learn from the US than to teach.

Mail-in ballots doubled in the US in the 2020 elections compared to the previous elections, in large part as a response to the covid-19 pandemic. But even without the pandemic effect, a sizeable share of American voters vote through postal ballots. In India, postal ballots are available primarily to those in the armed forces and those on election duty. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, just 2.3 million or 0.4% of the total valid votes cast came via postal ballots. India has taken a few baby steps towards expanding postal voting. In October 2019, the Union government amended the rules around postal voting to extend the option to electors over the age of 80, railway staff, and mediapersons covering elections. The February 2020 Delhi assembly elections were the first to be conducted under the new rules. In the recent Bihar assembly elections, the Election Commission of India toyed with the idea of extending the option of postal voting to everyone over the age of 65 years. Ultimately, it restricted it to those over 80 years, and those either suspected or confirmed to be covid-positive. For such registered postal voters, the Booth Level Officer visits the home of the elector with a form and collects it within 5 days. The number of Bihari electors who took up this alternative was modest.

3. Voters’ freedom of speech, opinion

It is definitely a cause for celebration to witness the outcome of the US election result. That is because it puts our faith and conviction back to the goodness of human beings and restore our faith in the political system. However, as far as we are concerned we have a long way to go because what America could do, we failed. Politicians, comedians, students, movie stars and political activists worked tirelessly to express what they believed is in the best interest of the country. One of the founding principles of the United States that Americans cherish is the right to freedom of speech. Enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of speech grants all Americans the liberty to criticize the government and speak their minds without fear of being censored or persecuted. Unfortunately, here in India, freedom of speech often lands you in jail.

4. Democratization of institution

People across political disciplines and institutions across the political system united to deliver what they thought should be done instead of blindly following their leaders. Democracy embodies responsive and responsible governance, rule of law, human rights, civic participation and peaceful transfers of power through electoral processes. Each of these underpins a peaceful and stable society. The US teaches democratic principles and democratization processes and techniques that are critical to both peacebuilding and effective governance. USIP seeks to strengthen governance by supporting inclusive, accountable institutions and a robust civil society. These in turn uphold human rights, justice and the rule of law, and promote public participation in social and political processes.

5. Collective effort of people

The people, they never repeated their mistakes. It is not for nothing that US has been able to build their image of a land of possibilities. People weighed in their political consciousness and decided for the betterment of their future. They knew how significant the outcome of this election will be. President-elect Joe Biden acknowledged the collective effort of voters in choosing the “truth”. “America, I’m honored that you have chosen me to lead our great country. The work ahead of us will be hard, but I promise you this: I will be a President for all Americans — whether you voted for me or not. I will keep the faith that you have placed in me,” he said. But in India, we see much hierarchy and divisions among voters.

6. Integrity of the opposition

The leaders elected epitomize that one need not be a divider in chief to win election. The leaders symbolize grace, integrity, loyalty, honest and respect. They want to heal the nation. Their fight is to restore the soul of the nation. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ in a nation. A leader must and should stand up on the podium and help people believe in the goodness of heart and souls. Their motif should be to unite and not divide. India’s opposition Congress is having its weakest time ever.

Hopefully one day we will be able to restore the faith of our fellow citizens who have been facing discrimination and injustice in the soul of our great country. The country which has fought many battles but has every time stood up to finish the war. The country which has been discriminated and derided but has answered people through its actions. The country which was built on the ideals of its great leaders who laid down their lives not to witness the perils of this nation. The country where harmony and peace has been redefined instead of being rejected.

“Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake”
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