One could write a book on the significance of the place Rahul Gandhi chose to start his Kisan Yatra. Deoria is just 21 km from Buddha’s last resting place, it’s the place where Jawaharlal Nehru was arrested by the British and Chauri Chaura’s police station, burned down by angry peasants during Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement, is close by.
But what is significant is how farmers appeared to have grabbed news and space with political parties in close combat over who is pro or anti farmer. It happened last year too, in the run-up to the Bihar elections. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, deeply embedded in the campaign, was forced to turn to issues otherwise consigned to recesses of most news pages. Between Bihar and UP, the poorest persons in India got attention and mind-space. It is no coincidence, these issues come to the fore when citizens turn into voters and are readying to press the EVM buttons. But frequent elections have been eliciting frowns recently. They are “costly”, widen the “governance deficit” and going to the people “so frequently” distracts from work. In March, at a closed door party meeting, the PM reportedly spoke of the need to get India to move to a one-election mode. It was reported that simultaneous elections to local bodies, assemblies and Parliament will save money and time. He is said to have spoken about political workers “spending a lot of time electioneering” and as a result, getting “less time for social work.”
Parliament’s Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice submitted its report on the Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to House of People (Lok Sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies on December 17, 2015. The committee argued that simultaneous polls for the Lok Sabha and state assemblies would reduce the “massive expenditure” that is currently incurred for the conduct of separate elections, end the “policy paralysis” that results from the imposition of the Model Code of Conduct during election time, reduce the impact on delivery of essential services and also the burden on crucial manpower deployed during election time. The “pragmatism” of this suggestion was countered when the report became public, as the bunching of assembly elections to all states proposed in “two phases” was cited as wildly impractical.
However, this unease with elections is worth examining. There is a suggestion on how elections itself are an anathema to “development”. If settled once, why keep “going to the people”? This idea is neither novel nor surprising. In 1975 too, it signalled a break in the election calendar of India. Slogans of the time explained the idea of discipline, order and administrative efficiency sought to be streamlined under the Emergency, with elections as something to be avoided till people knew better.
When the Constitution was being debated, universal adult franchise was not a foregone conclusion. A section held that only people who were graduates/propertied/ moneyed should be allowed to vote. So what we take for granted now, was not always a given. For most Indians, it is their only chance to assert equality and comment on public policy. Plenty of anger at India’s inability to deal with social and economic inequality has been voiced, but the fundamental equality of One Person, One Vote must not be underplayed in that process. This is a point most poignantly visible in long queues at the polling booths during election time in poorer areas. Elections remain the most powerful and decisive way in which people can speak and make a difference. To see them as inconvenient is not a politically neutral idea.
It might be more democratic to factor in rolling election results as inputs to policy, to welcome local campaigns as theatres where policy is articulated and debates are framed. Till we get a better way of gauging how India is responding to its ruling party’s policies or the Opposition’s efficacy, watching Rahul Gandhi in UP triggering a debate on the lives of those who sit on khaats or walk off with them or how Amit Shah is received differently in Gujarat, in each trip necessitated because of periodic elections, is the best way to sense the mood of the nation.