Polarising polls impact local development

All elections in India are polarising.

Polarising polls impact local development

Divided: Polarisation affects the implementation of schemes.

M Rajivlochan

M Rajivlochan
Professor, Panjab University, Chandigarh

All elections in India are polarising. That polarisation impacts subsequent policy implementation, at least at the local level. Maneka Gandhi’s recent warning to voters to not come running to her if they did not vote for her may have been condemnable for having exposed the ways in which Indians function, but that is how it has been for many years now. The relative backwardness of Amethi and Rae Bareli has already been attributed by the Congress to the politically inimical state governments and, more recently, the Central government which was blamed for restraining the development because these were constituencies that returned Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. 

The greater backwardness of Sultanpur, represented by Varun Gandhi, belonging to both the Gandhi family as also the BJP, would then have to be justified using another excuse. 

Observers of Indian politics, journalists and social scientists do not notice such a transactional process because they focus only on the big picture of politics rather than the nitty-gritty of how politics is played out at the level of locality. 

At locality level, the village or mohalla, such polarisation can cause great harm. Sensitivity to the harmful impact of such polarisation was what resulted in many state governments promoting schemes to encourage unanimous elections at least for panchayats. A divided panchayat plays havoc with life at the village level. 

In our study of the Jal Swaraj that covered over two decades of the history of water supply schemes in select villages of Maharashtra, we found that there was a huge demand in villages for a scheme that would supply piped drinking water to their homes. However, the only villages where people were able to successfully implement it were those which took a conscious decision to keep politics out of decision-making. In many villages, the villagers also insisted that anyone who wanted to be part of the management of the water supply scheme needed to publicly renounce any further interest in panchayat politics, promise not to participate in zila parishad elections.

Inevitably, a TISS survey of the 80 villages’ scheme in Jalgaon district rued the absence of politics in the water supply scheme. Little did these innocents born and brought up in urban areas and trained in formal sociology, realise that absence of politics was actually the reason for the success of the scheme that brought in piped water, twice a day, into every household in 80 villages year after year after year.

The simple fact is that politics in India is contestatory. Bringing politics into everything, or keeping it out, was further highlighted in our study of Ralegan Siddhi in the 1990s. We documented the decision-making and growth in this village which was yet not as famous as it is today. Anna Hazare, a native of this village, had transformed it from a centre of illicit liquor production to a model village and earned the ire of the political leaders of the district whose survival depended on creating divisions among people. Most of the development here was the consequence of Anna Hazare enforcing the no-election principle for panches and sarpanches. The one occasion when that principle was abandoned, Hazare was quickly ousted and the village erupted in mutual acrimony. Hazare had to invoke his by now high moral stature to end the bickering, go back to unanimity and, basically dump democracy. 

The belief that after the election results are out, life goes back to normal and everyone lives in fraternity has been belied far too many times. If the victor does not polarise, then the losers do. They persist in accusing the victor of being partial to supporters and marginalising those voters who voted for the opposition. 

At least that was the case in Punjab when the opponents of the CM, Partap Singh Kairon, persisted in accusing him of discriminating against them in the distribution of state-sponsored goodies. “Transport licences are given only to Kairon supporters” was one such charge. It persisted despite Kairon offering documentary proof that many more transport licences were given to Kairon’s opponents than to his supporters. This was in the 1950s, in the very first decade of Independence, when the Congress party was supposed to be the only victorious party. All of Kairon’s accusers were his opponents within the Congress. 

Analogous accusations of partiality were made against Sukhbir Badal when he was the Deputy Chief Minister of Punjab 50 years later. It was even said that the Akali government under Sukhbir Badal ensured that development works were not undertaken in pockets where people did not vote for the Akali Dal. 

Ever since EVMs enabled political parties to know the polling booth-wise breakup of votes, political parties have been able to identify the voting pattern booth-wise. Whether it impacts the official commitment to develop the area covered by the booth is a matter open for speculation.

The fact of the matter is that in India, polarisation is the consequence of the ease with which people can cherrypick facts to construct their own version of the truth. Indian cultural resources easily enable people to accept the idea that truth is entirely context dependent, subject to change with circumstances. Death is considered the only ultimate truth. In actual life, this amounts to a position where India’s culture believes truth is irrelevant. Some would also add that speaking the untruth, suggesting the falsehood, too has cultural approval. Even dharmaputra Yudhishtira, with his deep and widely known commitment to truth, could wriggle his way towards untruth with the famous line, “Aswathhama hatha iti Narova Kunjarova”.

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