Will of the people: 800 million Indians are voting in the biggest election ever

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com

Winston Churchill was thinking of his own defeat at the polls after having led Britain through World War II when he uttered one of his more famous quotes, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Women in Kerala, India line up to vote.  /Reuters
Women in Kerala, India line up to vote. /Reuters

He might, however, also have had India in mind since the Indian subcontinent, once “the brightest jewel in the crown” of the British empire, had just been granted independence while split asunder into two countries, India, predominantly Hindu, and Pakistan, predominantly Muslim.

“Partition” was bloody, agonizing and ugly, but India was about to begin a prolonged exercise in democracy.

Democracy, India-style, reaches an apotheosis over the next few weeks in turbulent, controversial, colorful elections that may mark a turning point in the country’s history.

Anyone who believes in a truly democratic form of government has got to be awed, moved and amazed by this display of the people’s right to elect the men and women they think will best serve them.

More than 800 million Indians, the largest number of people ever to vote for anything, as far as I know, are trooping to the polls to choose members of a parliament that will then decide on the next prime minister.

This display of democratic fervor is if anything more deeply impassioned than that in any presidential election in the United States, where slightly more than 60 percent of eligible voters have cast their ballots in recent years.

The process can also turn violent — rioting and killings always happen. The election process is deeply seated in the whole concept of Indian governance from the birth of the nation.

That’s in contrast to South Korea, where democracy did not emerge until after the assassination of Park Chung-Hee in 1979 and mass rioting nearly eight years later against Park’s military successor, Chun Doo-Hwan.

If India and Korea seem like two totally different countries, they both flaunt democratic systems with this common denominator: People can vote for their leaders.

The odds in India now avow a self-described “Hindu nationalist,” Narendra Modi, whose principal accomplishment is to have been chief minister of Gujarat state on the northwest coast at a time of extraordinary growth.

While the average income of Gujarat’s 60 million people has been soaring by 16 percent a year, that of the entire country, with a population of at least 1.2 billion, has been rising by only 4-5 percent.

On the basis of that comparison, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has a better than even chance of displacing the long-ruling Congress, the party of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, of his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who took over two years after Nehru’s death, and of her son, Rajiv, who also became prime minister.

Indira and Rajiv were both assassinated. Now the favorite of the Congress Party is Rajiv’s son, Rahul, whose Italian-born mother, Sonia, is president of the Congress, which Rahul serves as vice president.

If the Gandhi family saga does not seem to fulfill the democratic ideal, the dynasty’s grip on power may finally slip away at the polls. Rahul’s record is flimsy, to say the least, while Modi has distinguished himself as a firebrand speaker who draws big crowds and, above all, offers the hope of turning around a moribund economy.

The current government, under the bland 80-something Manmohan Singh, not only countenances pervasive corruption but also has been unable to set the economy on a strong upward track.

Although Singh is a former finance minister with a long economic background, he’s going to leave office after completing two five-year terms with a reputation as a mediocrity who countenanced corruption and nepotism.

In a time of economic unease and seething discontent, India might benefit from real change. Modi might blow in on a breath of fresh air. Don’t count, however, on Modi proving too effective either. India’s economic problems may be beyond the capabilities of any prime minister, however dedicated to needed reforms.

In the whirlpool of Indian democracy, Modi faces one enormous historical issue that he simply cannot live down.
That’s the black mark he’s gotten for failing to stop rioting in Gujarat in 2002 in which more than 1,000 died, the vast majority of them Muslims.

Yes, a panel exonerated him of responsibility, but typically Muslims see Modi as a menace. India’s Muslim minority totals about 180 million people, as many as in Islamic Pakistan. Violence — Hindu against Muslim, Muslims against Hindus — is inevitable. The point is to stop it from flaring and spreading.

Terrorism and violence carry the seeds of destruction of democracy. Churchill had it right. However imperfectly, no other form is going to work for the benefit of most of the people. India in these elections exemplifies the truth of his dictum.

Donald Kirk spent most of last year in India as a Fulbright senior researcher. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.

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