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2018-02-20 01:57:28 | Shankkar Aiyar

Will the New Voters Redeem the Fortunes of a Young Republic?

Like I wonder if this is a good time for people to recall what Winston Churchill had said in British Parliament when the India Independence Act was moved by then Prime Minister Clement Atlee. He said “…power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters; all Indian leaders will be of low calibre and men of straw. They will have sweet tongues and silly hearts. They will fight among themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles…” Like it is worth recording that while Churchill does sound shrill, spiteful and silly six decades later, it cannot be altogether disregarded that on occasions Churchill does sound prophetic.

Like, the first thing that strikes me is the scale of the population. In the elections for the first Lok Sabha held between October 1951 and February 1952, a total of 105.9 million voters out of a total of 173.2 million registered voters participated in the elections. Later this year, when India elects its 16th Lok Sabha, just the count of first-time voters is expected to be nearly 100 million. And yes, the number of registered voters in January 2014 is 810 million. Incidentally, India was among the first of developing nations to craft a national family planning policy—in 1952.

Like I wonder how many of the 18-year-plus populace of that “65 per cent of India under the age of 35” chant are registered as voters and how many actually do step out to vote. For instance, it would be interesting to know what percentage of the first-time voters did vote in the polls for the five state Assembly polls. It is all very well to claim X per cent of Generation Y is rooting for Z. But of what use is all the rooting if the voters are rooted to home Wifi networks on polling day. After all, there have always been new or first-time voters. For instance, the total number of registered voters went up from 671 million in 2004 to 714 million in 2009. The question—assuming the total addition of 43 million were all first time—is did they vote? Did voter turnout spiral higher? I notice  turnout has been stuck around 58 per cent in the last three Lok Sabha polls.

Like I would like to believe that Generation Y thinks differently and therefore will vote differently. Like I would like to believe that new voters—of the demographic dividend fame—chanting NaMo or in the RaGa chorus, will cast and not caste their votes. But again I wonder if that is too idealistic a thought in a country where political borders are often drawn with surnames.

Like I think it is worth a shot (perhaps someone from the JNU?) to study if governments which took oath in maidans and stadiums did better or at least got re-elected more often than those who stuck to staid halls. Like I wonder what is the big idea of passing bills at maidans? Wouldn’t people be able to watch the debate anyway on television? And really would a bill passed in the Assembly be less effective than that passed in a maidan?

Like, the law of unintended consequences lived its moment of glory this week. The Reserve Bank of India announced that banknotes issued prior to 2005 would be withdrawn in a phased manner. The recall of banknotes is aimed at bringing down the ratio of counterfeit bills in circulation. The buzz across India, however, was about a possible—backdoor—demonetisation. How well-timed that would have been. Imagine all the cash in the pre-poll landscape demonetised! Well, this being the season of courtesies in cash, clarifications were sought and delivered. This is not to say that there won’t be any demonetisation. Some of the bundles that didn’t move in poll season could well be stranded in lockers or wherever. And somehow it is not surprising that both black money and corruption—the Prevention of Corruption Act was originally passed in 1947—have haunted India since Independence.

Like it is heartening to know that India has been a robust competitive democracy since its induction into the hall of republics. In the elections for the first Lok Sabha, 1,874 candidates contested for 401 seats (in a house of 489). In 2009, India saw 8,070 candidates contest for 543 seats. In 1951-52, the maximum number of candidates in a constituency was 14, in 2009 it was 43.

Like there is every reason to celebrate the successes of this Republic called India. After all how many countries can boast about delivering universal franchise at the dawn of freedom. That democracy took root in a landscape where eight of 10 Indians couldn’t read or write, where over half the populace couldn’t eat twice a day, is a tribute to our founding fathers. 

And finally, those who aspire to lead India might want to remember this salutary lesson: A republic is a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote. 

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