The epic task is complete. In nine phases, over a course of 36 days, an electoral population of over 800 million people in 543 constituencies had the opportunity to vote—requiring five million people to administer the procedure and another five million to provide security, and costing taxpayers Rupees 35 billion ($580 million). A truly monumental effort.
India had the biggest election but it was not alone in this venture. Spring arrived and elections were in the air; Afghanistan, South Africa, Turkey, Belgium, and Egypt were part of a longer list. Many people seem disillusioned with their current government and quite ready for change. Maybe it’s just that those who are dissatisfied are the most vocal, creating an impression of general unhappiness. Maybe it’s aggravated by the media focusing on the discontent, and playing it up to fill printed news pages and the 24-hour news cycle. Or maybe the desire for change is just natural. The grass always looks greener on the other side and even over the septic tank.
But it may be more than that. It may be disillusionment with the workings of democracy.
Right now, the undemocratic nations and their rulers seem stronger. Russia has dreams of expansion and Vladimir Putin is amassing troops near Ukraine. China’s “peaceful rise” has morphed to “quiet assertion” and Xi Jinping is claiming territorial rights in the South China Sea. North Korea is happy to stand alone and Kim Jong-un continues his legacy of threats against South Korea. Zimbabwe has its ageless Robert Mugabe. They seem to be able to get things done and quickly, while leaders of the democratic nations seem weak.
America is gridlocked and Obama seems professorial. In the United Kingdom, Cameron seems haunted by expense scandals. South Africa has high unemployment and Jacob Zuma appears morally bankrupt. And in India corruption seems to have reigned unchecked, under Manmohan Singh.
There’s no doubt that democracy is messy, slow, and inefficient. We, in India, are particularly aware of that. In the supposed race between China and India, India fares badly because we must do things democratically and with consensus. Crouching tiger, bumbling elephant.
Even the well-known Indian policewoman and social activist Kiran Bedi recently said that she’s prepared to sacrifice the cause of anti-corruption for some good governance. This statement was likely made to justify her shift of support from the anti-corruption and somewhat anarchist Aam Admi Party to the Bharatiya Janata Party. But in some sense, India has made this compromise for years now. When frustrations grow in the face of inefficiencies and lack of resources, it’s understandable why people move towards anything that offers a modicum of efficiency and certainty.
All forms of government come with a price. But with democracy—good or bad, right or wrong—we get the government the majority of us voted for. It may be a bumbling elephant, but it’s our bumbling elephant. And democracy at least espouses equality and human rights.
Despite the chaos, gridlock, incompetence, corruption, and having to repeatedly put up with the expensive circus of elections, those of us living in democratic countries need to remind ourselves that it’s not just our right to vote but our privilege. Elections are a rare and infrequent opportunity for the common people to shape the country they live in. Democracy may be another word for freedom. Few of us would knowingly or willingly give up the freedom to succeed or fail in our own way in exchange for a more efficient life in a gilded cage as dictated by someone else. Mohandas K. Gandhi said, “Good government is no substitute for self government.”
India has a new democratically elected Prime Minister. It is time now to believe that we have voted for what we think is best for India. And it’s time to hope we can arrive at a summer of satisfaction.
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer and editor, based in New Delhi. Her articles have appeared in several newspapers and magazines, including the NY Times, IHT, WSJ, FT, and the Atlantic.