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Home > General > Pakistanis Need to Reflect on the Elections in India

Pakistanis Need to Reflect on the Elections in India

by I A Rehman, 21 May 2009

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The Indian election

Pakistanis should find a proper study of India’s latest general election quite rewarding — that is if they can abandon their utterly irrational resolve to learn neither from friends nor from foes. One of the most peculiar features of the Pakistani mindset is an incredibly strong sense of self-righteousness.

As the chosen community we do not have to learn from any other people. Indeed, the world, especially the non-Muslim part of it, has nothing to offer us. The ‘godless communists’ apart, we ignore even the believers in the West because of their ‘obscene practices’ and their high divorce rates. If a country had questioned our credentials to lead the Muslim ummah or failed to vote in our favour at a world forum it was to be put down in the list of permanent enemies.

In this regard, India has been selected for the worst possible treatment. Since we have designated this closest neighbour as our most inveterate foe, the question of looking at its ways of dealing with issues of statecraft, development, public welfare et al simply does not arise. So strong is the Pakistani elite’s aversion to India that it barely acknowledges its South Asian identity. Most Pakistanis would like to believe that Pakistan is located somewhere between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

We become jealous of Bangladeshis if we find their taka has become a stronger currency than our rupee or that they have radically slashed their population growth rate, but we have no interest in examining as to how all this has been possible. (An exception is some rudimentary attempts to imitate the Grameen system of micro-credit.)

This mindset prevents Pakistan from studying Indian strategies to deal with the various issues that also plague us. Faced with problems of stagnation in agriculture we have invited experts from the western countries that have little knowledge of our soil, our land tenure system and the strengths and weaknesses of our peasants but we have made no serious attempt to analyse how India, a food-deficit country in the early 1950s, is now groaning under stocks of surplus grain. The destruction of Pakistan’s railway system is a most painful scandal but it is doubtful if we have tried to find out what keeps the Indian railways running. We have subcontinental diseases and we insist on applying Middle Eastern cures, quite unmindful of the disastrous results.

This habit of ignoring Indian efforts to grapple with the problems that afflict Pakistan also must be given up as the cost of persisting in this folly has become unbearable. This does not mean that whatever the Indians have done is wholesome and worth emulating because the mistakes made by them are legion. What is implied here is that when different communities address identical matters they can all learn from each other’s experience, their failures as well as their successes. It is in this context that one should like to urge state functionaries, public representatives, academics and students of politics to take a hard look at the latest general election in India.

First, the mechanics of an election. India is the only country in the world where polling in a general election is spread over several weeks, the basic reason being the keenness to ensure availability of the necessary personnel in sufficient strength in each sector. Till some years ago ballot boxes used to be kept under strict guard till counting could begin at the end of polling. It was no small achievement that in a country that was among the first to report incidents of booth-capturing no serious complaint of tampering with ballot boxes was heard.

But in 2004 India took a revolutionary step by switching over to vote-recording machines. The success of the system has silenced all those who had argued that the poorly educated rural communities could not use machines. True, there have been minor problems here and there but on the whole voting by machines has yielded huge benefits.

The entire hassle involving the printing of ballot papers, the dispatch of these ballots, stamps and papers related to polling to faraway polling stations and arrangements to guard against pilferage has been done away with. Counting can be done easily and speedily. The need for hard copies of electoral rolls can also be eliminated. All that a voter is required to do is to go to the polling station for his residential area and gain admittance by establishing his identity and his place of residence. True, those who can storm polling stations — and this species is not absent in Pakistan — will use the machine as effortlessly as they can stamp ballot papers, but that is a law and order issue, not an electoral problem.

The electoral contest was prolonged and bitter. The ruling coalition was visibly nervous and the challengers were smelling victory. But considering India’s vast territory, its mammoth electorate and the presence in considerable numbers of criminal elements among voters and candidates both, incidents of violent disruption of the electoral proceedings were negligible.

Some improvements in India’s political culture were evident in the promptness with which the losers admitted defeat and the manner of their doing so. In the main they held themselves responsible for their poor showing instead of blaming the system or the winners for wrongdoing. It is evidence such as this that convinces everybody of the election having been free and fair.

The electorate in any country derives immense pleasure from proving the poll forecasts wrong, and the more underprivileged a people the greater their happiness in surprising sophisticated mind-readers. Indian voters have once again enjoyed proving themselves to be masters of the moment. Now all the experts can indulge in semantics to their hearts’ content over why the people in a part of India preferred a party/candidate to another, why someone won and somebody else lost. The voters have spoken and moved on — replacing a dissection of the past with hopes of turning the corner in the future.

The extent to which the election commission has contributed to the development of electoral processes and conventions in India merits study by Pakistani experts. India has avoided reserving the chief election commissioner’s office for the judiciary and succeeded in establishing the institution’s credibility. Differences have been noticed between the commission’s working under a stern and authoritarian Seshan and a gregarious and media-loving Gill and there have been occasions when observers have wondered at the commission’s laziness or else but on the whole the system has continued to deliver.

No doubt Indian democracy is far from perfect. The ordinary citizen’s participation in governance is largely restricted to periodic elections of his representatives with little control over the latter’s performance. But Pakistanis will do well to appreciate a poor Indian’s feeling of fulfillment when he recalls that it was he who threw out prime ministers or reinstated the discarded ones, that he has been part of the process of change. It is this heady feeling that enables the ordinary Indian citizen to own the state and to be proud of it in spite of all his grievances about being neglected, abandoned and exploited.

The greatest misfortune of the Pakistani people has been that the repeated disruptions of the democratic journey by authoritarian adventurers have deprived them of the joy of owning the state. The Indian election needs to be studied in Pakistan in order to settle the question of the state’s ownership — whether it belongs to an oppressive, incompetent and corrupt elite or the dumb, exploited multitude.