1) No matter who wins, policies remain the same
It's evident if you've been reading the manifestos parties have put out or if you're just a casual observer of Indian politics. The centre-left Congress and the centre-right Bhartiya Janata Party and the freak experiments with wobbly "third fronts" that India has had – they all do the same things.
They all want foreign investment and gradual privatisation of public enterprises and central schemes to alleviate poverty. They all worry about the slow pace of infrastructure development, they all want good relations with Pakistan and even better ones with America. They all pass their own anti-terror laws with different names and put people in jail for years without charging them with anything. They all overlook Hindu-Muslim violence in the states, whether it is Gujarat 2002, Assam 2012 or Uttar Pradesh 2013.
When in opposition, they say some different things, even if you can pull out their quotes from the archives to show they said the opposite in power. Perhaps in no other democracy does changing the party in power have so few policy implications. Amazingly for a country so large and diverse and going through so much change, India's polity has very little that it is not unanimous about.
2) Big ticket changes not possible in coalition era
The momentous decision on liberalising the Indian economy was taken in 1991 by the minority government of Narasimha Rao. The majority of India's current population was not even born then. We're so used to coalition politics, we've forgetten the things a government with an absolute (two-thirds) majority can do. The last time India had a government ruled by one party with a clear majority was 30 years ago, in 1984.
Coalition governments are not able to take big ticket decisions because allies tend to exercise their veto over whatever they like, sometimes because it is against their politics and sometimes for sheer blackmail. By contrast, a government with two-thirds majority would be able to do whatever it likes, even tinker with the Constitution, as long as it does not incur the wrath of such autonomous bodies as the Supreme Court, the Election Commission and the central auditor. That kind of a government is unlikely for a long time.
Most people would argue that coalition politics has resulted in the big parties being moderated and that their extremes have been kept at bay. But it has also come in the way of making daring policy gambles and reducing the scope for a prime minister to implement a unique vision.
3) State elections are more important
The things that affect the lives of ordinary Indians – roads, water, electricity, state-buying of agricultural produce, law and order, civic amenities – are all controlled by state governments. Indian voters know that the state election is more important for their well-being. Even big items like foreign investment depend a lot more on state governments than we think: states that make themselves conducive to foreign investment get more of it. Ditto for issues that seem to be national, such as terrorism and foreign policy.
Most states have performed much more poorly with regard to governance than the Centre. As a result, the Centre has had to step in with big schemes to improve development indicators. Yet these schemes have to be implemented by the state governments, so it depends how efficiently and honestly they are able to do so. That may suggest that India could do with more centralisation but some argue the opposite: that state governments are too powerful, and power needs to devolve from there to the districts.
4) Parliament barely functions
Among other memories that coalition era has made hoary is the memory of a parliament that functioned like parliaments are supposed to. They debate and discuss and we remember the best orators among them. Twenty laws passed by the current parliament that is ending its term May 31 made it through with discussions that lasted five minutes or less. Parliament simply doesn't have time to do what it is meant to – debate legislation – because opposition legislators are always disrupting its proceedings to corner the government on one issue or another.
The last three parliaments have seen a particularly sharp decline in performance. The one that just ended was the worst. It has the highest percentage of bills that lapsed for want of time. By passing 179 of 328 bills, it became the parliament to have passed the least number of laws in a five year term. Only 61% of its precious time was used productively. Is this what 814 million voters are expected to be enthusiastic about?
5) Our lawmakers represent too many people
Some would argue that India has too many laws and we don't suffer much if the parliament performs badly in enacting some more laws. Yet the purpose of a parliamentary is not only to pass laws and elect an executive. Lawmakers represent the will of the people. They represent the people's concerns, their worldview, their desires and aspirations.
This requires simple things, such as the members of parliament keeping in touch with their constituents, mingling with them and seeing how the government can help with them. This is the task Indian lawmakers can be least efficient with, considering that one member of the Lok Sabha represents, on average, 2.2 million people and 1.5 million voters. Can one person represent so many people? Even if you add the Rajya Sabha MPs to that, taking the number of parliamentarians to 795, India still has the least number of parliamentary legislators per head.
An obvious solution to that would be to increase the number of Lok Sabha seats, particularly for states that are under-represented. But that has been frozen since 1976 so as not to discourage the southern states from continuing with their family planning and population control measures. Another solution could be to increase seats for everyone, as suggested by British political scientist Alistair McMillan.
A less obvious solution is to increase the number of Lok Sabha MPs through proportional representation, allowing political parties some additional seats on the basis of their vote-share. This would make Indian parliamentary democracy a lot more representative, bringing in smaller groups and tempering the tyranny of the first-past-the-post system. But that is precisely why big parties won't allow this to happen.
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What is an election for a five-year government in an ancient land? It is but a speck of dust in the history of time.
In 1967, 20 years after independence, the Films Division of the Indian government interviewed 20-year-olds who were born in 1947. It asked them what they though of India. When the documentary was put online some months ago, many marvelled at how little seems to have changed. That tells you something about how momentous this election is.
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