In one scene, Covid-19 ravaged patients wait desperately outside hospitals and clinics as life slowly sinks with each passing gasp. All they want is a bed hanging on oxygen – the proverbial breath of life. While they wait – suspended between the gates of deliverance and death – their loved ones scour pharmacies for another even rarer lifeline, a drug. They owe their predicament to politicians so distracted by the power to hunt that they looked away from the Covid-19 balloon.
Indeed, in states linked to the poll, despite warnings of an impending second wave of Covid-19, political parties have dragged supporters into dusty arenas. Here, unmasked and cramped, they were condemned to wait for an audience with the “khadi vision” that smugly sold its brand of politics to a captive audience. Didn’t these political leaders know that this once-every-five-year ego massage could give thousands of bus supporters a one-way ticket to pandemic perdition?
These two scenes sum up the futility of an election conducted in a time of national crisis. The winning political parties and alliances will undoubtedly rejoice – one hopes quietly – but what is there to celebrate?
Are we really celebrating the abject despair of voters, who are so disgusted with the status quo that they are willing to reject it by lining up and risking their lives in a deadly contagion? Are we celebrating the perfidy of silver-tongued politicians who think the pursuit of power justifies the unforgivable neglect of organizing mass rallies like coronavirus stalks? Or will the results celebrate the vitality of a democracy even if the Indian Election Commission was conspicuous by its absence?
Take the EC first. As an election arbiter, he must scrupulously uphold standards of fairness while being seen to do so. While there is no doubt that it is appropriate for election candidates to paint the EC in partisan colors, if only to prepare a face saver for impending loss, some of the poll committee’s omissions raised puzzling questions. If the decision to hold an eight-phase election was unprecedented at a time of a pandemic raging, this should have been the nature of the intervention to discipline political parties that failed to obey guidelines encouraging Covid behavior socially responsible. But the intervention never came. In the end, the high courts of Calcutta and Madras did not mince words in reminding the voting committee of its grave omission. Alas, it was not the only one.
In this election, as has happened in recent years, the CBI and the ED worryingly attacked opposition leaders just before or during the polls. Could EC have asked, if only to be satisfied, the intention behind the actions of the agencies? After all, don’t these raids create an imbalance that can favor one side over the other.
And why did the EC not subject candidates and activists to the “Seshan test”? Former India Election Commissioner TN Seshan bolstered the voting group’s formidable record of fairness and independence by reading the riot act to candidates who, among other indiscretions, refused to speak the language of a civilized democracy. If he had been alive today, he would not have been happy to see the laxity of the voting committee in the discipline of activists who desecrated the model code of conduct. Some candidates even saw their bans inexplicably reduced by the panel. But it’s not just EC’s shortcomings that could spoil the celebrations. Politicians are also to blame.
Elections are the expression of unhindered public will. For the result to be legitimized, it all depends on what the candidates are asking voters to vote for. Throughout the campaign, on all five battlefields, competitors appealed to a lower instinct – encouraging prejudice against another faith; generate suspicion against the “foreigner”; and foster an insular nationalism that mocks the civilizational creed Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.
And when the contestants weren’t busy citing this prejudice playbook, they deigned to offer a life of greater material comfort – conveniently forgetting the hypocrisy of it all. After all, haven’t the incumbents on the whole excelled at nurturing a condescending well-being, cronyism and corruption that only serves to divert the resources of the neediest?
It was once said that “whoever wins, an election should be the time for optimism and new approaches.” But for the above reasons, will the verdict of May 2, delivered by a fifth of the Indian population, inspire optimism?
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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