On April 20, India will embark on its 14th general election to be held in four phases. By the end of May, Indians would expect their next government to be in place. Incidentally, the nation will be freed from the policy- strangulating code of conduct so overscruplously implemented by the Election Commission as to create near paralysis in economic policy-making for almost four months.
The Indian elections have thrown up no significant issue of national importance for the international community to show any real interest in its outcome. For most Indians also, no political party has demonstrated real passion, either on ideology or issue-based commitment. Consequently, there is little enthusiasm amongst the general public or animated issue-oriented discussion, even though more voters will be out on election days in India than has been the case in any other national election in the world.
This is not to suggest that we do not have major issues staring at us in our country. In fact, there are several such issues, but the two most obvious are the religious divide and corruption.
Despite its corrosive pervasiveness in almost every facet of our lives, be it politics, bureaucracy, police, armed forces, academics, banking, stock exchange, corruption is strangely the defining issue in our electoral politics. No political party is trying to fight the elections on the issue of eradication of corruption. It has been left to a few maverick but controversial former bureaucrats to the raise the banner of anti-corruption, but they are hardly taken seriously because of the perceived ineffectiveness at the national level. All that the major political parties have done is to accuse each other of scams, throw mud at each other and personalise the issue of corruption to gain temporary advantage. What we need at this time is for our political elite to tackle it as a generic, thematic issue related to good governance and economic development. In a nation which does not consider the all-pervading corruption as an obstacle to faster economic growth, no political party considers curbing of corruption as an essential part of its economic growth reform programme.
On the other hand, political parties are acutely aware of the dangers which religious and communal divides pose to the future of Indian polity. A few Togadias and Shahi Imams notwithstanding, every politician in his party are in a race to get recognition as a secular being, in the hope of gaining a larger share of popular votes. What seems to escape the attention of our politicians is that neither the minority nor the majority communities are impressed by empty labels of ‘we are secular but they are communal’.
India, of course, is not the only democratic country in the region. We have the unfortunate tendency to look at other democratic countries of the West when judging or comparing our own democracy. It would help to look within our own region to examples of countries with similar problems as our own. Malaysia is a democratic Muslim country, with a very large proportion of non-Muslim population. Despite being a secular country, India has fewer minorities in proportion to the total population than Malaysia has. Both Malaysia and India have a growing propensity in their respective majority religions to resort to dogmatic interpretation of their respective religions. Both Abdullah Badawi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee are moderate Prime Ministers leading rightist political parties under multi-party coalition governments and do so with wisdom and foresight.
Malaysia held its 11th general elections last month and the people there returned the Prime Minister’s ruling coalition with a massive majority. His strategy of making corruption a major issue in the election campaign enthused his people to vote for his coalition government. What are the expectations of the Malaysians of their newly elected government?
In the words of the noted Malaysian political analyst, Chandra Muzaffar, “Muslims and non-Muslims now would like to see Abdullah translate his modern, progressive understanding of Islam into tangible policy prescriptions. Aspects of Islamic family law that impinge upon the dignity of women, the curriculum of Muslim students and the training and orientation of religious teachers are some of the issues that he will have to address....It is an essential pre-requisite for peace and harmony in a multi-religious society where exclusionary thinking of whatever shade only widens the chasm between communities. This is why curbing communal polarisation through an emphasis on values that Muslims and people of other faiths share is yet another important goal”.
Chandra Muzaffar further adds: “By handing him a resounding victory at the polls, Malaysians are pinning their hopes on Abdullah to stamp out money politics and corruption while initiating fundamental changes that will pave the way for the emergence of a more ethical society.”
If I were to put into words the expectations of the people of India from their government after the forthcoming elections, I could not have done better than Professor Muzaffar. Yes, our expectations from our leaders and the new government we will elect are no different from those of the Malaysians from their new government.
For far too long, our politicians have been content to pander to the less tolerant, more extremist elements amongst our majority and minority religions. The lessons of smaller countries, like Malaysia, is that our perennial electoral debate on who is more secular or who is more communal, will never solve the problem of communal and religious divide that has become a growing phenomenon. What we need to do is to search for common values amongst all religions and endeavour to transform the rigid mindset which pervades the votaries of communalism on either side. That, indeed, is the only secularism that really matters.
Our people equally share the expectation of the Malaysian people to stamp out money politics and corruption from our society. Do our politicians seeking our vote know that? And will they deliver once they have secured our votes?
The writer is former Permanent Representative of India at the UN
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