Sunday, Jun 16, 2024 | Last Update : 01:35 PM IST

  Opinion   Columnists  14 May 2024  Bhopinder Singh | Is the ‘marketplace of ideas’ beginning to get diminished in India’s democracy?

Bhopinder Singh | Is the ‘marketplace of ideas’ beginning to get diminished in India’s democracy?

The writer is former lieutenant-governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry
Published : May 15, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : May 15, 2024, 12:05 am IST

As elections unfold, substantive debates give way to rhetoric, highlighting a gap between democratic ideals and political realities.

People wait in queues to cast their votes at a polling booth during the fourth phase of Lok Sabha elections, in Khunti district, Monday, May 13, 2024. (PTI Photo)
 People wait in queues to cast their votes at a polling booth during the fourth phase of Lok Sabha elections, in Khunti district, Monday, May 13, 2024. (PTI Photo)

Democracy, in an ideal situation, ought to be a contest of ideas, and not a public relations competition. The electoral season should trigger a marketplace of informed debates and fiercely contested ideas with supporting plans, declared priorities, and postulated solutions, to what troubles India. This would obviously entail the freedom of speech for all, an equitable space for ideas from all competing sides, fact-check culture, and detailed evaluation of “shadow” plans as promised in the manifestoes of various parties. The nuts and bolts of the path proposed should be made amply clear and curbs enforced on one-sided hijacking of the media, sophistry, spin-doctoring, deflections, or fear-mongering, to ensure that the constituents are able to assess the marketplace of ideas freely and fairly. But is it really so in the “world’s largest democracy”? The short answer is “no”.

Globally, democracies are regressing into public relations exercises with individuals and dynastic cults, unsubstantiated promises, and in the unique Indian experiment with democracy, with unsustainable promises of freebies and “reservations”. Ironically, the more backsliding the agenda, the higher the traction! “Garibi Hatao” (eradicate poverty) was the winning slogan of Indira Gandhi’s campaign in the 1971 election campaign (and also part of the 5th Five-Year Plan). Almost 55 years after that, with many decades afforded to the Congress Party and about 15 years out of the last 25-odd years to the BJP, there are over 800 million Indians surviving on free staples. Only the semantics have changed to Pradhan Mantri Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY). The last Global Hunger Index ranked India at 111 out of 125 countries, but as it happens whenever something unsavoury is brought to light, the government swiftly attacked the report as “mischievous” with “mala fide intentions”. A woman minister attributed the report methodology to getting “a phone call from Gallup and they are asked ‘Are you hungry?”, and later mocked that had she been asked that question on a busy day, she too would have said: “Oh yes, I am.” Sarcasm aside, that is not how the Hunger Index is calculated and the brutal reality beyond partisanship is that collectively all governments, be it from the Congress-led or BJP-led varieties, have failed India, even if the constituents themselves still deify their political leaders, as only Indians do.

The high-decibel electoral duels are replete with baseless insinuations, emotive alarmism, and “manufactured outrage”, while being frighteningly low on meaningful content. The air of majoritarianism has injected a regrettable “us-versus-them” discourse that manifests itself recklessly and in a polarising manner with allusions to certain communities (what they eat, how they dress, what they ostensibly seek for India, etc). With the extent of the socio-economic crisis, agrarian distress, and wounded communities (such as in Manipur) -- it is rather rich and wholly unpardonable to be discussing “mangalsutras”, inheritance tax, non-vegetarian food, et al. The race for leadership is not decided amongst who is more qualified, understanding, statesmanlike and accepting of the challenges, but by who is more religiously pious, more nativist (not progressive), or more aggressive towards the proverbial “other”. The Opposition has no refreshing alternative in terms of “ideas” and only tries to “out-regress” or match the script of twentieth or nineteenth century with a combination of dynastic insistences, and regional/ethnic supremacism in their boroughs. Amidst the meaningless drama of pretending to be more patriotic, holier-than-thou and essentially appealing to the basest of human instincts, the country is only becoming increasingly hungrier, angrier and more divided.

For starters, there is just no insistence that politicians show any concrete “plans”, other than rather imperious personal “guarantees”. Why can’t facts, details, and the thought-through “plans” be put forth by all parties? Why can’t the politicians table a semblance of “shadow budgets” and “shadow cabinets”?

The means of “shadow” (proposed) will inform the citizenry about what form, action and direction the various alternatives entail? It will be tantamount to putting your money where your mouth is in terms of showing budgetary allocations towards various sectors and regions (instead of making easy promises everywhere, which are never intended to be honoured, otherwise called “jumlas”). Instead of crying hoarse, the Opposition can posit their alternative vision and allocations in their “shadow budget” to demonstrate that their alternative plan can improve the existing situation or address wrongs. Sectoral allocations would force clarity and trigger serious discussions on the competing “plans”, instead of discussing personalities ad nauseum.

Doesn’t the citizenry deserve to know the form of “reforms”, and what will be retained, clearly? The orchestra of leaders on all sides harping on “don’t you trust me” is condescending and patronising. All parties are resorting to this tiring admixture of hyperbole, rhetoric, whataboutery and sheer falsehoods without a care or concern at the fakeness and poison that it injects into our society. The “world’s largest democracy” seeking to be the rightful global hub of thriving innovation, large-heartedness, and science-based progress cannot be lacking for plurality of ideas and diversity of opinions by being constantly suffocated and driven towards a templatised uniformity.

A stark omission in this ongoing election has been the absence of data and figures that could have opened a healthy dialogue, a safeguard for democracy itself. All uncomfortable data has been relegated to “vested interests” or even “anti-national” derision. Opportunities and platforms for diverse participation without the threat of some sort of curbs are missing. The commonsensical betterment of society with a plethora and rigour of competing ideas has been denied, quite knowingly. There is clearly no “party with a difference”.

Tags: 2024 lok sabha elections, freedom of speech, majoritarianism