Garhwal Post, February 22, 2007
The second state assembly elections for the state of Uttarakhand have now come to an end, with the ballot count scheduled to take place on February 27. As with all elections, the outcome will be influenced by money, muscle, and media hype, as well as a heady mix of random events and factors that can affect anyone’s chances regardless of their campaign or ideology. Not only will the results determine governance for the next five years, but also lock everyone else out in the state’s unreconstructed first-past-the-post system. This lopsidedness is especially pronounced in contemporary Uttarakhand’s fractured polity, where an assembly seat majority may be won with only a third of the counted votes.
Sadly, the only thing that can be said about these elections is that the more things change the more they remain the same. The choice of alternating between the Congress and BJP has been foisted once more on the electorate, with little hope of a breakthrough third front. Sadly, a viable alternative that can break the duopoly of power and win a general election could not come to fruition, which raises serious questions about what in fact has been gained by the creation of the state, with the continuing dominance of the national parties with little interest in regional aspirations. The UKD remains a minor party, despite representing the hopes and dreams of the original vision of Uttarakhand. Many voters would support such a regional force if they weren’t so ambivalent about its leadership and had concerns (although misplaced) about its parochial vision. And while there might be a chance that the party will play an important role in a hung assembly, it still must surpass yet another national party the BSP whose hold on seats in the plains is all but guaranteed.
Given these sombre tidings, average citizens must think anew over what democracy really means before conditions worsen under any assembly majority. They should not be content to only practice their franchise in a one-off manner, but strive to bring democracy to the every day. While over-politicization may be a problem particularly in the Indian context where non-violent and sometimes violent popular protest is the most advanced in the world, real participatory democracy remains elusive. Moreover, as political parties take their turns in the seat of power, only to be thrown out when they’ve had their fill of the spoils of government, the poor and downtrodden in addition to serious-minded citizens remain marginalized and ignored, thus the dire need to creatively pursue alternative governance models.
So whatever the results, honest discussion must be rekindled and practical ways for citizens to have more say in government explored, especially as the state faces some daunting challenges and potential calamities. For example, the environmental crisis found mention nowhere in the electoral platforms of the parties beyond vague platitudes despite the serious long-term threat presented by climate change and glacier retreat, water, air, and land pollution, and the hydrological and social impact of dams that are coming up everywhere in the state. The demographic balance of the state where highland villages are emptying out, only to see lands bought up for summer residences of the wealthy, is another trend that may see most Garhwalis and Kumaonis living in exile within a generation. Whatever government that comes to power and rules until 2012 will have to deal with these big issues, and they can begin in March by inviting the entire state to dialogue. If however, they choose triumphalism over magnanimity, they will hopefully face the electorate once again sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, that is the only power common citizens currently have, other than bandhs, chakka jams, dharnas, gheraos, and hartals as the Uttarakhand movement so vividly demonstrated.