Governments never learn–only people learn. Voting, therefore, is a right best exercised by people who have taken time to learn about the issues
It will soon be election time in India–a season for meaningless rhetoric and false promises. Politicians will outdo each other in making irresponsible statements about a lot of things. A big hot-button issue will be corruption. Politicians will attack each other as corrupt, yet as every Indian knows it is impossible to run a political party in India without kickbacks from public-work contracts. Let’s face it–they all have their hands in the cookie jar. Indian politicians are masters at the art of looting the public exchequer, yet few ever get caught– an indictment of the rot in the country’s political system.
It is the voters’ fault that politicians are allowed to get away with such dishonesty. The citizens have allowed the government to become a big part of everyday life in India making it virtually impossible to do anything without running into the government. Politicians understand this dependence and take advantage of their institutional superiority by acting like kings instead of public servants. They know they can say anything without being questioned. Like kings of yesteryears, Indian politicians often refer to their administration as “Hamare raj mein ( during our rule), and surprisingly nobody questions this attitude.
If the citizens of India want a government that is responsive to their needs they must demand it before elections, not afterwards. Since people get the government they deserve, it is up to Indian voters to wise up and start demanding answers from their politicians. India will never be transformed by the political class or the government. It is not in their interest to have intelligent and well-informed voters. The country will change only when its people start to understand and demand change. No country in history has been transformed by the goodwill of the political elite –change happens only when an informed citizenry demands it.
The first thing voters need to question politicians on is money. In the coming election season, candidates will promise voters a potpourri of freebies and handouts. Each candidate will try to outdo the other. It is up to the voters to ask,” where would you get the money to pay for these handouts.” Remember, nothing is free. Someone has to pay for it. If someone else is getting a benefit and you are not, then you are likely paying for it. If farmers are promised a loan waiver, voters should demand to know whether the funds will come from cutting existing programs or new taxes, or will that cost be laid at the foot of an already distressed banking system? How does waiving loans for one group affect the loan repayment behaviour of other groups in the future? Doesn’t such fiscally irresponsible behaviour by politicians open up a Pandora’s box that could have serious implications for India’s financial institutions?
Taxation is an important responsibility of a government and voters need to know where politicians stand on this critical issue. Are they for higher or lower taxes? Most Indian governments sneak in new taxes in form of a cess or an increase in excise duty. The excise duty on petrol and diesel has been hiked eleven times since 2014–an increase of 380% for diesel and 120% for petrol. But most taxpayers are unaware of this because they were never voted on. In countries like Switzerland, taxes cannot be increased without a voter referendum. Similarly, most states in the United States require a voter referendum for any tax increase. Taxpaying voters in India must also be allowed to voice their opinion on tax increases, at the least be able to question politicians on their position on taxes.
Voters also need to questions politicians on the role and size of government. Most people in the country feel burdened, stifled and oppressed by a government that has grown too large, too bureaucratic, too wasteful, too unresponsive, too uncaring about people and their problems. It is important for voters to question politicians on whether they view the government as having a limited or expanded role in economic activity. Do they support free markets and greater economic freedom or socialism? How can they make government employees more responsive to the people? How would they deal with the corruption of public officials? Would they endorse the idea that all government employees be subject to performance appraisals and removal from employment if found derelict?
In modern democracies, elected officials are supposed to work for the people and be their voice when it comes to issues of poverty and justice. Voters should inquire how politicians expect to provide for their safety both from external aggression and internal strife. Do they perceive the role of the police to arrest, harass and scare people or to provide a helping hand? What are their views on issues like healthcare, girls’ education, clean water, human trafficking, or response to potential wars, disasters and conflicts?
It is also important that voters test political candidates on their knowledge of the Indian constitution. Just from hearing them on TV it is clear that the vast majority of them are clueless about the constitution they promise to uphold. How can they be expected to be faithful to a document they have never read much less understood? Politicians who don’t understand the constitution are unlikely to respect the sanctity of the words ” We the people.”
The onus is on the voters to focus the conversation on things that matter. For the longest time politicians have gotten away with making irresponsible statements at large rallies where they are unquestioned. It is, therefore, imperative that voters demand that the Election Commission, or the political parties themselves, develop a mechanism of town hall meetings where voters can question candidates. This should be done at all levels starting with local Panchayats and going all the way to a nationalised TV debates between the leaders of different parties.
The stakes in 2019 are high, and the spin doctors and political pundits are already out in full swing. In this age of media-driven elections, most voters will never get the opportunity to have a candidate sit down and answer all of these questions. But voters can, however, still judge candidates just by asking themselves a few basic questions.
Question 1 — Does this candidate show real courage or is he full of bluster and promises? Does he or she have the backbone and integrity to fight for the rights of all citizens or are they just consumed with holding on to power? Would this candidate do the right thing even at the cost of not being re-elected? The answer to this question could come from their track record in opposing or supporting previous legislation or from positions they have taken on issues that are unpopular? The challenge of our time is to find politicians with real courage.
Question 2 — When you listen to a candidate, do you find yourself thinking just about the candidate and their story or thinking about your life, family and future? Do their words inspire you and leave you with a sense of optimism about the future? In his campaign speech in 1979 Ronald Reagan spoke about the future of America as the “ shining city on a hill”. This was the time when American hostages were being held in Iran, petrol prices had gone through the roof, inflation was running at 11%, and interest rates were at 14%. His inspirational words provided optimism to a nation in distress, and he was elected by an overwhelming majority.
Question 3 — What is this candidate for? You know what they are against — starting with their political opponents–but can they articulate an agenda and the set of principles and policies they intend to foster? Do they spend more time talking about their opponent or their ideas? In 2014, Modi effectively articulated a vision for India and won big. Candidates who spend the vast majority of their time criticising their opponents don’t stand for much themselves.
Question 4 — Does the candidate talk in generalities or specifics? In politics, like in business, talking in detail is key to success. So while one-liners and bumper-sticker slogans are cute they don’t produce real results. Beware of candidates who use sweeping generalities such as I promise to remove poverty, or our government is going to be awesome. Candidates that talk specifics and provide real, concrete and detailed solutions have a vision that can be trusted. The ones with bluster are generally crooks and liars and care only for themselves.
Question 5 — Is the candidate more concerned about making friends or keeping promises? Are they more worried about who is right than what is right? Are they driving wedge-issues or building bridges? Are they team players and consensus builders or confrontationists?
Before I close, I want to paraphrase the words of Joseph Warren spoken on the eve of the American struggle for independence in 1775. “Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of…on you depend the fortunes of this country —you are to decide the important question, on which rests the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”
This is an important time in India’s history. The nation has made good progress on attacking poverty and improving the standard of living for millions. Everyone now recognizes the importance of private enterprise, entrepreneurship, free markets, greater personal and economic freedom and a smaller less-intrusive government. It is time now to reform the electoral process. Indian voters need to demand accountability from their politicians through forums where they can put their feet to the fire and ask the questions that really matter. The time for speeches, political rallies, and empty rhetoric and promises is over.
Transforming India will require a responsible and informed electorate.