The dance of democracy has miles to go

So we are all finally done with exercising our franchise on Saturday, 12th May, and been through the truly exhilarating ballot counting process and the results. A good to time to pause and reflect on the last few weeks and the run up to the assembly elections.

My constituency Mahadevapura saw candidates from the top three parties (INC, BJP, JDS), many other smaller parties (APP, Swaraj, et al) and individuals in the fray. We have many issues in the constituency which is home to many IT parks, the world famous frothing Bellandur Lake, the choc-a-bloc outer ring road and a lot of small hutments and slums.

On paper everything that you expect to see in the run up to an election happened. Candidates canvassed, there were candidate rebates organised by the RWAs, manifestos published, et al. But the quality of the debate was low, many candidates didn’t seem to get into specifics of issues and didn’t seem to have a clear plan of what they would do if elected. Not one candidate had a clear game plan for pollution, reduction of traffic, clear actions to restore lakes, address sewage issues and drinking water. A sad state of affairs indeed. Candidates dabbling with generics, and making hollow assurances doesn’t inspire citizens much.

The only refrain we heard on the debates were promises, we will listen to you, address your problems…. But how? Dear candidates, you haven’t applied your minds enough!! If the run up to an election doesn’t make you think about solutions what would? It was also sad to see some candidates with active criminal cases in the fray.

The local broadcast media TV9 and others, the newspapers, Association for Democratic Reforms, RWAs, Open City and of course Citizen Matters helped citizens understand issues and the candidates. Local channels like TV9 covered each Constituency and gave voters an insight into local issues, candidates and their perspective. The RWAs organised candidate debates in many constituencies in Bengaluru. Great job indeed!

The national media just swooped down and made noise, peddled their prejudices, amplified their biases and in some cases confused issues. The debates on TV were bad at best, shouting matches and uninspiring chatter. No value to help undecided voters! They focused more on caste arithmetic than ground level issues. Clearly the national media made this a INC Vs BJP debate which was unfair to the other smaller parties as though they were invisible or pariah. Clearly the biases were visible. A big thumbs down!!!

The smaller parties like AAP and Swaraj fielded decent candidates barring a few surprising exceptions. Clearly they didn’t have the spend firepower to match the bigger parties. I was surprised that they didn’t use social media well enough though which is quite a shame! Also in some of the road shows of smaller parties like saw volunteers handing out pamphlets but not able speak the local language and engage the public. That doesn’t enthuse a big section of voters.

There is a lot of work to be done in the election ecosystem to keep parties and candidates more accountable. Some thoughts:

1) Would like to see more neutral and credible fact checkers to debunk claims by politicians in their speeches.
2) There should be neutral citizen groups that rate campaign speeches of politicians for coverage of issues.
3) It was good to see some citizens manifestos published but didn’t some of these that were not very meaty. A good start though.
4) There seems to be no structured or published metrics to measure performance of a government across various functions it is responsible for. This is one single area that would help voters hold parties accountable.
5) There appears to be no benchmarking with other states or governments elsewhere. This is badly needed to bring focus on extent to change and speed needed.
6) There is a crying need to track manifesto promises and what was eventually delivered by parties. One did hear that the INC leadership speak about having delivered 90% of promises. One wonder how that was arrived at and if it was independently?

Clearly a lot needs to be done to make political parties and candidates accountable!

The Election Commission has done a good job with the VVPATs giving voters more confidence. The electoral database needs serious clean up… Spellings, ease of accessing and approval of changes, deletions still seem a huge problem. There is need for better management of booth front desks where slips are given (this needs automation), voter search ought to be easier at front desk, the EC app is poorly designed for usability (an irony, given we live in Bengaluru). EC must mandate that parties publish manifestos a month ahead, else manifestos are shared with a week to go for elections in some cases, make things rather farcical. A lot of work yet to be done!

And now finally, the citizen… TV9 shows showed how little citizen know about governments, parties, elections, issues and most importantly their responsibility to vote. Quite a deplorable situation despite all the push from the RWAs and other groups. One is reminded of what the French philosopher Joseph de Maistre famously said, “In a Democracy people get the leaders they deserve”. What can one say to the citizens but “Wake up O Kumbakarna!

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