It is a cliché that every election in India offers a hope of change. Change has often meant the incumbent government being thrown out and a chance to punish individuals or parties that took the voters for granted. This kind of 'change' is not new in India, but there hasn't been much 'change' in the real sense after any of these elections. So will the 2009 general elections be different and usher in a new generation of politicians? Will they qualitatively redefine Indian politics for the world? We would be naive to actually believe that any one election can change our rotten-to-the-core political paraphernalia - one that survives by deceiving its people through clever media management and yet thrives on a lucrative patronage. However, some silver linings do hold our hope.
We saw some common and interesting trends emerging in the recently-concluded assembly elections of six states. The most significant of these is an exceptionally high voter turnout - in areas that extended from the unsteady western borders in Rajasthan to the volatile eastern extremities in Mizoram, from the treacherous Jammu & Kashmir to deep within Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and in the heart of the nation's capital. This high voter turnout indicates a growing awareness of and interest in elections, believed to be especially profound amongst the urban middle-class youth and particularly first-time voters.
Another striking trend is that this high voter turnout has not necessarily stemmed from anger with the incumbent government, as has been conventional political logic. Delhi stood as a stark exception to this thumb-rule with a triumphant return of the ruling party. This means that the voter does appreciate and reward good governance and is no longer apathetic to it. Whether this interpretation is right or wrong, it may actually create a vested interest among politicians to try and do their job better than before, if only to stay in power.
The real challenge, however, lies in building on these positive trends. If our political parties were to react to these perceived signals and take necessary steps, we may actually witness political progress. One sure-shot way to do this would be to put up young and educated candidates to represent parties. Omar Abdullah seems to be a definite breath of fresh air in the otherwise claustrophobic J&K environment. Another would be to focus on issues that the newly enthused voters will see as relevant and legitimate, such as gender and environmental sensitivity. Parties and their representatives can also showcase attributes that appeal to the young, such as a modern outlook and cosmopolitanism. Parties should be eager to attract these new voters.
Another lesson we learnt the hard way is that sectarian politics over non-issues does not always work. For instance, the 26/11 terror attack was expected to cost the Congress its secure position across states, having been seen as incompetent to deal with terror. The opposition left no stone unturned in playing its cards to that effect. But the voters shunned the expected knee-jerk reaction and instead voted with their minds, choosing the option they thought was better in their state - even if it meant repeating Congress. Delhi again stands as testimony to this. Parties would do well to read this as a new maturity among voters and move away from identity politics to figure out the right poll promises that can actually be implemented. What's more, since all parties would want to hold out promises that the others have not held on to, there could be a real possibility for innovation in schemes that matter to us at the grassroots.
There are other reasons why the 2009 polls could be more issue-dominated than any general election since 1999. There is a growing realization among parties that the Lok Sabha polls are no longer one big national election, but are more like simultaneous elections in all states and union territories. Therefore no grand central idea such as the delusional India Shining seems sufficient in capturing the imagination of people across the country.
This time, more than ever, issues and parties are likely to matter much more than personalities. Of course, all of this is assuming that between now and when the elections are held, nothing happens that dramatically alters the rules of the game - such as unrest with Pakistan or communal disharmony. That is one change we can do without.
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