ZEE JLF@The British Library
Ornit Shani and Mukulika Banerjee in conversation with Ajoy Bose
In this engaging session at the Jaipur Literature Festival @ The British Library, programmed to give UK audiences a taste of the mother festival in Jaipur, Ornit Shani, author of How India Became Demcratic, and Mukulika Banerjee, author of Why India Votes, discussed the successes as well as flaws of the electoral system of India’s largest democracy.
Ajoy Bose began the session by observing that a few decades ago, elections in India were like a carnival, whilst today they are far tamer because of the regulations that have been put in place. “It’s quite amazing that elections have survived the many challenges of India; Indian elections are the symbols of the country’s democratic credentials.” In India, the size of Indian parliamentary constituencies are often twenty times the size of a constituency in Britain.
Ornit Shani pointed out that at the time of independence, hardly 16 percent of population was literate, and so the election system was designed to enable an illiterate person to cast a vote. Seventy years of electoral voting has deepened democracy, and over the past decade, it is no longer clear if people are voting along caste lines, previously a major factor. As such, election results are now completely unpredictable. “People in India bring down government, unlike in other places,” Shani observed. “The election commission has never shied away from reforms or changes and has been a very dynamic institution.” However, the real concern, she claimed, was the continual growth of money politics, where votes are effectively bought.
Mukulika Banerjee stated a series of factors that have had a major impact on elections in India: one, voter turnout rates go up every year, contrary to the general trend in other countries; two, women and men in India vote in equal numbers, also contrary to the general trend; three, the more local the election in India, the higher the voter turnout is. All these factors, she says, are completely counterintuitive to European elections in the present day.
Banerjee stressed the need to examine the reason behind the high voter turnout, because despite that elected politicians often didn’t perform in India, the people still seemed to believe in the electoral process. She acknowledged that money and muscle have dominated Indian elections, but even so, elections were ‘the only moment’ in Indian public life people felt a genuine experience of equality. As such, they did still have a carnival atmosphere. The voting queue is the only public space where no matter the social standing, everybody has an equal stake.
Banerjee also stated that amongst the current political parties, there is now an understanding that spending on elections may not be having such a big impact after all, since people take the goods (kerosene, alcohol, sari) and often then vote how they want anyway. She addressed the recent controversy surrounding the Electronic Voting Machines, stating that EVMs are “glorified circuit boards,” and any electronic mechanism, in principle, can be hacked. However, in reference to the recent hackathon suggested by the Election Commission in India on June 3, she counselled that “anxiety about the EVMs is a misplaced anxiety,” because it is still so difficult to do.
– By Srishti Chaudhary