The election campaign for the 17th Lok Sabha is obsessed with trivia and full of personal invective.
Whatever may befall Theresa May this week, her vigorous performance, both in and out of Parliament, shows up the gross deficiencies of our own supposedly biggest democracy in the world. Where the British Prime Minister explains and urges, Narendra Modi delivers rabble-rousing orations or makes snide remarks about his opponents. Where Britain’s Tory MPs have presented their leader with an ultimatum, our ruling party politicians seek their leader’s favour through sycophantic flattery and imitation.
The election campaign for the 17th Lok Sabha is obsessed with trivia and full of personal invective. At no time have Indians faced so many grave challenges demanding a concerted effort at reconstruction. Kashmir is again on the boil. Acrimony with Pakistan threatens Asia with nuclear annihilation. Falling employment, rising prices, corruption and agricultural distress warn that despite boasts of the world’s highest growth rate, the economy is either not doing well or its benefits are not equitably spread. Communal tension is mounting. Investment is declining as are exports. The surest sign of flagging confidence in the very idea of India, more and more Indians are anxious to shake India’s dust off their feet. Whereas only six to eight lakhs migrated annually up to 2011, a stupendous 17 million did so in 2017. Being cited in the Asian Development Bank’s Asian Economic Integration Report 2018, this figure could not be suppressed or massaged. It’s a matter of pride that Indians are in such great demand globally, but it’s also a matter of shame and sorrow that so many presumably highly-trained young people should feel India has nothing to offer them.
No less worrying, the Rafale fighter jet deal controversy confirms the dreary truth that there is never a defence (or government) purchase without suspicions of corruption. The Bofors gun, submarine and helicopter deals were all tainted. Even when Ronald Reagan’s intervention ensured that Rajiv Gandhi was at last able to obtain a supercomputer (though not the ultra-sophisticated machine that he wanted), the manufacturer, Control Data Corporation, complained that the high-ranking Indian officials sent to the US to collect the machine demanded commission payments. With such dark forces at work, we don’t know why Mr Narendra Modi’s government cancelled existing transfer of technology and work share agreements or why it didn’t want the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, experienced in manufacturing aircraft, to make Rafale fighters. Curiously, too, although the government claims the new price is between nine per cent and 20 per cent cheaper, it still isn’t buying the 126 aircraft that Dassault, the maker, had offered. The biggest mystery of all is that manufacture has been entrusted to Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence, which is without experience in this field.
These matters should cause public concern and be reflected in campaign speeches. Instead, we hear cheap cracks about Sam Pitroda’s alleged lack of patriotism or wild allegations against “traitors” like Hamid Ansari, Naseeruddin Shah and Navjot Singh Sidhu. One political aspirant assures his followers that Pakistan and Tibet will be part of India by 2025; another sees some kind of victory in predicting that this election will be India’s last. Not that he can be blamed too much. Amit Shah, the BJP president who has replaced the respected veteran Lal Krishna Advani as the ruling party’s Lok Sabha candidate from Gandhinagar in Gujarat, boasts that if the BJP wins this time, “no one can throw us out in 50 years”. Already regarded as the second most important man in the country (some even drop the second!), the burly 54-year-old Mr Shah with his habitual stubble is widely regarded as the 68-year-old Mr Modi’s potential successor.
There was a welcome break recently from the mud-slinging, braggadocio and fabricated news that pass for politics in India when Rahul Gandhi announced that the Congress would consider introducing a Right to Healthcare Act if it comes to power nationally. He promises to guarantee universal minimum healthcare facilities by raising national healthcare spending — which is now abysmally low — to 3 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product and increasing the number of healthcare professionals. One only hopes that this reiteration of an old promise will mean more effective medical care than the present government’s much publicised Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana, which is claimed to be the world’s biggest healthcare scheme. Just as the $27 billion Swachchh Bharat Abhiyan campaign, launched on October 2, 2014, has provided ample photo ops for a broom-in-hand Prime Minister without noticeably cleansing public places, the “cashless and paperless” healthcare system launched only six months ago clearly with an eye to the April-May elections has yet to make any impact.
True, the Congress is trying to introduce free healthcare in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan where it came to power in December, but the disorganised national Opposition still recalls 1977 when the Janata Party was, as the saying goes, all chiefs and no Indians. Even if the various groupings led by Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Mamata Banerjee and others, including the formidable satraps of the South, can cobble together a majority, Mr Gandhi, whose youth is his oldest tradition, may not lead it. Indeed, it might be better for the credibility of democracy in the Opposition ranks if he doesn’t. As the editor of the Urdu weekly, Nai Dunya, Shahid Siddique, puts it, “The 2019 battle is not to save the Gandhi family or the Congress Party, the battle is to save India and its future”.
Similarly, the Brexit debate isn’t about Ms May staying or going. As Donald Tusk, the European Council president, says, the UK has the “choice of a deal, no-deal, a long extension or revoking Article 50”, and staying on in the European Union. Whatever is decided will be in the national interest. Which is what democracy is all about.