Elections season is back in India once more, and once again we’re going to be treated to a long series of bickering exchanges conducted via press conferences and newspaper headlines. The prospect is nothing if not starkly depressing.
In India, we have in place three ingredients vital to the democratic process: many politicians (sellers), many participating voters (buyers), and many television sets (advertising and trials). Here’s an idea: Why not put them all together in a more deliberate fashion, so that the electorate has a better opportunity to scrutinise its aspiring leaders? Don’t we deserve to examine what we’re signing up for?
At the moment, all we get is the media report of rally speeches, insults and allegations traded between political individuals and parties, and, on the occasional debate show, questions put by journalists which usually fall rather far short of tough or persistent, or are entirely irrelevant to voter concerns.
The problem with most of our existing political fora is that we, the people, don’t get to ask questions. The other problem with our existing political fora is that we, the people, are socialised to be so sickeningly deferent to power of any sort that we think it’s rude to ask questions, and that confrontational questions are beyond the pale. But if we were able to suppress centuries of politesse, it would be nice to have our own chance to ask the questions that matter to us.
Like: How come your government was able to put an Indian flag on the moon but is incapable of building a road that doesn’t melt into dust every few months? Apparently building roads is not rocket science, as they say, and many countries we count ourselves superior to seem to have no trouble with it at all. Why don’t you ask them how it’s done, maybe sign some technology transfer agreements in the road-building department?
And so forth.
At the moment, we all too often let ourselves be fobbed off by replies like “The other government did it” or “We will demand a probe into the matter” or “We are doing our best” or “These things take time” or “That’s an anti-national statement”.
For some reason, Indian voters are willing to put up with much more than they should. Urban voters in Delhi breathe deep lungfuls of foul air and drink deep draughts of poisoned water—where water is available—and don’t seem to connect these conditions to their declining health, the poor nutritional value of their food, and their quality of life. If we do make this connection, we don’t sit up and make a song and dance about it.
We don’t seem to connect the state of civic hygiene—stagnant water, festering rubbish heaps, excretion in the open—with diseases that show up every year and take lives. If we do, we don’t seem to demand that civic agencies fulfil their responsibilities.
We don’t seem to connect the state of road signage and maintenance, and the state of road usage education, with the state of gridlock traffic and accident rates. If we do, we don’t seem to demand that the government find a way to enforce the laws governing how one gets a driver’s licence, and how one drives.
We just don’t demand quality of our politicians, and perhaps if we fussed about it enough, we might get it. I realise that large numbers of people will run, squealing, from this idea, on the grounds that nobody can bear to see more footage of our politicians. But if nothing else, putting them through some quality control questions would allow us to despise them for more informed reasons.