As the dates for the Lok Sabha polls get nearer, the decibel levels of the ongoing political discourse seems to be getting shriller with issues of least national significance being spoken about. None of the parties or the key individual players seem to be drawing the attention of the electorate to matters of collective national good. The little noise that one person or party is making regarding corruption, crony capitalism and dynasty politics have got drowned in his/their own theatrics and television antics. While one expects political rallies and public speeches to provide opportunities to communicate the key messages reflecting the social, economic, political and policy thought that the party subscribes to, they are now reduced to demonstrating their numerical strength, media visibility and financial clout. Indian democracy is known to be noisy and unhealthy. One of the ways of making it healthier is to enhance the quality of debate and discourse during the election season. Parliamentary elections provide the ideal platform for issues of national significance to be brought to the center-stage and to appreciate the general direction that the Nation is likely to move towards.
While emotions and other factors rather than mere reason are known to guide the voter in choosing his representative, one also needs to appreciate that he cannot be taken for granted and fed with morning headlines that are bereft of any serious content. Most discussions today seem to revolve around the creation of ghost issues and diverting the discourse to mere sloganeering. While we are seeing one calling another a Pakistani terrorist, another wants to chop his rival party’s leader to pieces while a third seems to be intent on sending everybody except himself and the voter to jail. This is indeed taking the focus away from issues on how the Nation needs to brace itself in dealing with the growing menace of terror-related violence and the problem of Naxalism. Neither internal security matters nor issues related to gender violence seem to attract any clarity of thought beyond being treated as ‘vote catching’ slogans. There seems to be hardly any debate on the energy crisis facing India or on how to redefine our nuclear policy, keeping both the changing international perception towards nuclear power and the local needs of the country. We are less concerned about the issues of pollution and environmental concerns in the background of the desire to rapidly industrialize and join the global bandwagon of mindless consumerism.
Despite the formation of many committees, the Nation is yet to have a scientifically validated poverty assessment process. We are still arguing about the different percentages of people below the poverty line in India, clearly derailing our understanding of poverty, the metrics of poverty and the processes to alleviate poverty. It is indeed sad that not a single party has made this an issue of electoral significance. There has hardly been any political or media space debating the impending danger of ‘policy capture’ by the elite, the rich and powerful and corporate India. Electoral funding by large corporate houses has the danger of being seen as investments, the returns of which will be amenable policies that will come later.
While UID (Aadhaar) and its implementation has been reduced to ‘noise’ at the level of one constituency, the real dangers of spending huge amounts of money on a scheme/program that has no legislative sanction has been brushed aside. Issues of data privacy and abuse of the information stored does not seem to find much space in the ongoing debate. No rational and long-term geopolitical policy involving our relations with the neighboring countries including China and Pakistan has gone beyond the usual rhetoric. We are still unsure on how to manage the changing comfort levels with the USA or on how to deal with our long time ally Russia.
Economic concerns including stimulating the primary land-based economy and creating a facilitating environment to promote the growth of the manufacturing sector do not seem to flow from an understanding of the ground realities and the evidence that stares us on the face. There is no debate by any party on how they view the youth of the country and how they intend to capitalize on the ‘demographic dividend’. Debates seem to harbor around merely giving tickets to younger people, while the larger issues of engaging meaningfully with the youth and skilling them up to participate in the mainstream economy has taken a backseat.
Except occasional articles by concerned activists and intellectuals, there has hardly been any discourse on Universal Health Access, rational drug policy (including the use of generic drugs), the burgeoning problem of adulterated and poor quality drugs, the growing burden of non-communicable diseases and on how to deal with them. No clarity seems to be there in any party’s thinking on how they intend bettering the poor learning outcomes of the millions of children in our primary schools despite spending crores of rupees for more than a decade now. Improving higher education seems to be limited to increasing the number of universities without looking at the fundamental reforms that the sector is crying for.
Except talking about general corruption, there is hardly any clarity on how to manage the growing issues of ‘collusive’ corruption that has been the bane of not just the public sector but also the private and NGO sectors. The political debate seems to focus more on stronger laws without a fundamental understanding of the fact that Indian society has to now move towards not merely ‘fighting corruption’ but ‘fighting to stay honest’.
Issues of good governance, metrics for measuring the work of Government and public servants, citizen centric polices including social accountability processes, creating opportunities for lateral entry of competent and deserving people into higher levels of the bureaucracy should necessarily form a part of the debate today. Other areas of concern that needs to be addressed are prudent fiscal policies and subsidies, Center-State relations and strengthening the federal structures. We now need to ensure that not just our development but also our democratic institutions have to be built on the principles that our Constitution enshrines. This would also mean a deeper level of debate on operationalizing the 73rd and 74th amendments and working towards deepening democracy beyond just transfer of funds and functions to our Urban Local Bodies and Gram Panchayaths.
All this can realistically happen only when the political class gets to feel the pressure created by their electorate. Citizens need to take control of the debate and start setting this agenda. They need to force questions related to these and other issues by confronting the political players with them. Unless we set the pace, intensity and quality of the debate, politicians will only dish out colorful but empty issues that reflect the society that they represent. The media has to take the lead in surfacing these issues and go beyond mere opinion polls and debating electoral arithmetic. Together, we need to communicate to our political system that the time has come for them to show us how much they agree rather than disagree with each other.