The Wonder of Political Party Politics in India

electionsBengaluru  Voting begins in mid-April across India and formal campaigning with the clarity of knowing the final lists of candidates from the various parties is only final now, hardly weeks before the polls open.  Voting is mandatory in the world’s largest democracy, but there are no penalties for non-voting, so the actual turnout is hardly 40%.  There are comments in the paper about how to vote twice with immediate claims to be joking.  There are pleas to not sell your vote for the highest price made frequently.  So, yes, the multi-party system is a messy affair, but, frankly, from the perspective of the jaded West where money drives the whole parade with media and candidates pushing and shoving to get to the front, it’s refreshing to watch real political parties dominate the process and hold the whip hand.

            The run-up to the final filing and naming of the candidate lists is wild stuff, as the major parties juggle their candidates and office bearers on and off the lists and from constituency to constituency.  In some cases old warriors are put out to pasture, braying and chomping at the bit.  In other cases office holders are being shuffled to harder districts to allow others to run in safer strongholds or are trying to jump to other parties to find a place in the final mix.  One candidate this week was welcomed into one of the major parties by local, state leaders and within 5 hours ushered out of the party by the national leadership unwilling to be embarrassed by the many lawsuits filed against the old lion and his questionable reputation.

            And, that’s part of the action now.  The level of parliamentary immunity has sometimes made the huge 500 plus assembly a hidey-hole of sorts for some questionable politicians looking more for safe haven than the opportunity to represent some of the far flung constituencies.  With the rise of an anti-corruption movement in recent years and the emerging middle class, the major parties have had to clean up their acts a bit, and this has led to even more shifting.

            Meanwhile the smaller parties try to figure out various regional or ideological alliances.  These are tenuous affairs by definition, because the whole point of a party-based system is that the party has to stand for something in order to distinguish itself and define its base.  Diluting a party’s platform for the sake of grand alliances is self-preservation for parties in their hopes of continuing to hold seats and have a chance to govern, but runs the risk of confusing the voters and putting them to drift. 

            Parties have to win as well, so that also means something of a spectacle for the voters.  Bollywood movie stars on the down slope of a career suddenly are candidates for one party or another in some far flung area.  Politics, despite the push for more transparency and accountability, is also about making money, and that finds more than 80 millionaires in this relatively poor country running for the governing Congress Party and 30 millionaires running for the rightwing favorite in this coming election, the BJP.

            But, more than anything it was refreshing to read a story in the Times of India, where a disgruntled politician was complaining that after years as an office bearer, he had been dropped from the list this election.  The spokesman for the party in no uncertain terms chided the man that he seemed to have forgotten that politics was a “collaborative” affair and the collaboration was about putting the party in the best position to govern on its platform, rather than advancing one person’s interest.

            Such a comment would be heresy in so many Western countries now and accompanied by blurting denials, claims of misquotes, and apologies for misstatements and inarticulate expression, but where parties still matter it was nothing more than a blunt statement of fact in the morning news in India, provoking no reaction or comment.            

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