Three Cheers for Democracy

It’s decision time in India once again. The world’s greatest and largest democracy with more than 700 million voters is going to elect 545 members for parliament as well as lawmakers for three states or provincial assemblies.

Given the number of voters involved and the size and breadth of the South Asian country, the elections have to be conducted in five phases, scattering across two months. With over 714 million people eligible to vote, it is the largest democratic exercise ever conducted on the planet. It’s a logistical nightmare moving millions of officials, material and government machinery across the country.

But the numbers and logistics are only part of the story. What makes this electoral exercise truly extraordinary is the consistency and regularity with which it has been held over the past six decades since the country won its Independence from the British in 1947.

Except for a brief period during the Emergency between 1975 and 1976, India has remained single-mindedly and steadfastly on the path of democracy and accountability chartered by the early visionaries who steered the country to freedom. Given India’s size, population, its inherent systemic weaknesses and myriad problems, it’s nothing short of a miracle. Especially in a region that hasn’t been most conducive for democracy and political stability.

The most remarkable thing about these polls is that there is no clear, overriding agenda before the two main political parties, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. The same goes for the Third front. Combined with the Left parties, the Third front has its own role to play. They may not form the government but they could prove a serious headache for the Congress and BJP scattering their vote share.

Even though Congress appears to have an edge over the Hindu nationalist BJP in opinion polls, the alienation of its allies like Lalu Yadav, Mulayam’s Samajwadi Party and Ram Vilas Paswan could prove expensive in the crucial Hindi heartland. But the Congress-led UPA is hoping against hope that its performance over the past five years would see it through this crucial test.

In the final reckoning, this vote would be a referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh who has often been panned as a ‘weak’ leader by opposition. However, considering the formidable challenges the nation faced over the past five years and how he dealt with them, this would be a rather unfair judgment.

While India’s sub-continental twin Pakistan has been struggling in its experiments with democracy, India has jealously guarded and nurtured its democratic institutions.

The credit for making the world’s biggest democracy its greatest should go to the country’s faceless multitudes, rather than the people they have been electing over the past 60 plus years. It’s their faith in democracy that has been at the heart of India’s phenomenal metamorphosis from a poor Third world nation into a rising giant on the world stage. So three cheers for the world’s greatest democracy!

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