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What Elections Are Not About

Niraja Gopal Jayal
Seminar, No. 480, August, 1999

As we prepare for the fifth general election of this decade, we also prepare to face the same slogans that are invariably dusted out and aired whenever an election is around the corner. These include Secularism, Nationalism, Stability and Security, none of which can suffer the indignity of expression in the lower-case. Without doubt, these represent very important, even critical, issues, but few of these big words actually speak to life as it is lived by the ordinary men and women who are the pillars of India’s democratic experiment. Similarly, though in apparent contrast to this, a virtual conspiracy of silence has prevailed on the question of the economic reforms – or Liberalization to give it its upper-case due – arguably one of the most critical `national’ issues of the 1990s. The reforms, as we all know, have never been submitted to the electorate for its ratification.

However they are defined, the so-called Important National Issues frequently appear remote and even meaningless to those who constitute the bulk of the electorate. There is in fact a glaring disjuncture between their lives, their everyday practices and the meanings attached to these, on the one hand, and the rhetoric that has become the stock-in-trade of so-called national politics, on the other. This may be why an earthy politician like Laloo Prasad Yadav has to forsake the more authentic native idiom which fetches him the votes, for the national idiom mandated by the social, political and intellectual elite of India, which therefore appears caricatural when expressed in his voice and words.

This is not an argument in the India vs Bharat genre. It is, instead, an attempt to propose that there is something important missing in the standard view of Indian electoral politics as constituted at two levels, viz., the national and the regional. Much has been made, in recent years, of the regionalization of the party political system in the post-Congress era. The fact that many regional parties have not merely won state elections and run state governments, but have also shown themselves capable of tilting the balance in coalitional arrangements at the centre, has made it impossible for this phenomenon to be ignored either in the electoral calculus or in political analysis. It is also a commonplace of election analysis that people frequently vote according to different registers: one for the Lok Sabha election, and quite another for the Vidhan Sabha. But neither of these arguments takes cognizance of yet another level that underpins both the nation and the region, namely the local. There is nothing special about spatiality per se, but it is probably worth noticing the inconsequentiality, in the regional and national registers, of things which matter to those who ought to count for more than just their numbers.

Thus, it is not often that one hears about elections in Kalahandi being contested on the issue of food security, or those in Jehanabad on the issue of personal security. Sometimes, though rarely, major policies that affect the lives and even survival of ordinary people do find a place on electoral agenda. But to what effect? Take the Narmada Valley Projects, and the Sardar Sarovar dam in particular. Everyone knows that if the dam is built to its full planned height, the maximum area of submergence will fall within the state of Madhya Pradesh. In the 1990 state election in Madhya Pradesh, nearly forty candidates who had pledged their support to the anti-dam movement were elected to the Assembly. Indeed, the BJP won 16 out of 17 seats in Khandwa and Khargone districts, largely on account of its express promise to withdraw support for the dam. Once in power, however, the BJP government of Sunderlal Patwa reflected an increasing inclination and even determination to proceed with the dam. Without further ado, the newly-elected MLAs cheerfully reneged on their commitments to their constituents, and the agitation was adroitly deflected towards the Central and Gujarat governments. The annals of the Narmada Bachao Andolan are replete with such examples of how, at election time, politicians in opposition eponymously oppose the dam, but once in government, invariably support it. Nevertheless, this is arguably a somewhat rare example of an issue of destructive development actually figuring on an election agenda, however abortively.