When India attained freedom in 1947, its people were not familiar with the democratic system. Democracy was once described by Abraham Lincoln as a system “of the people, by the people and for the people’. But, such a definition hardly mirrors the reality of politics. It implies, ultimately, the existence of a system of Government formed by the majority of the people.
However, the autocratic rule of the British Raj for two centuries ruined the spirit of the people and the widespread illiteracy compelled them to live in sub-human conditions. No wonder some political thinkers had remarked that democracy would fail to strike roots in the Indian soil.
Jonhn Stuart Mill, the distinuished British political philosopher, had suggested that ‘universal education must precede universal adult-franchise’. In Britain, the voting right was actually extended step by step with the march of time and the spread of education. But, Article 326 of the Constitution of India overnight granted adult franchise in spite of nationwide illiteracy.
Yet it is a stark reality that elections in India have revealed considerable enthusiasm among the masses (Sachdeva Gupta, Indian Constitution, p. 211). Since the first general election in 1952, a large number of people have evinced keen interest in voting. Even the villagers have taken part in the electoral process despite a variety of hazards. It would be instructive to note that as many as 1,635,000 votes were declared invalid in the first election. Many voters, because of illiteracy, left the ballot papers on the floor of the booths or on top of the ballot box. This would imply that the right to vote was granted long before the proper time (Dr AC Kapoor, The Indian Political System, p. 424). But, it can, by no means, be ignored that they were keenly interested in the electoral affairs and many disabled people reached the booths with the help of others in order to cast their valuable votes.
Indeed, the success of democracy largely depends upon the participation of the people in the elections. As SL Sikri puts it, “Elections lie at the heart of every democratic process”. They are actually the accepted means for modern democracies to establish legitimate Governments ~ they secure people’s participation in public affairs, ensure peaceful transfer of power and combine the authority of the Government with legitimacy. (Indian Government and Politics, p. 89)
But, from that point of view, our experience has not been particularly encouraging. True it is that a large number of people take part in the elections; but it is equally true that many others stay away from the polling booths for various reasons.
But, as Dr H H Das has pointed out, political participation is vital to the proper functioning of a democratic polity. It actually provides vitality and creativity of democracy and it also offers a defence-mechanism against tyranny and autocracy. (India: Democratic Government and Politics, p. 367)
The usual method of political participation is to exercise the right to vote in the elections. Yet a large number of people are averse to political participation or they participate at the lowest level. Political scientists have determined four reasons for such aloofness. First, there may be “apathy”, which would mean the individual’s indifference towards or abstention from electoral affairs. Such a mentality stems from a lack of interest in political affairs. Second, there may be a certain “cynicism” rooted in suspicion towards and distrust of the motive and activities of others. This attitude develops because of the feeling that politics is a dirty game and that the politicians are , usually, unscrupulous persons. Third, there may even be a degree of “alienation” or hostility towards politics. In such cases, the person keeps a distance from the active political system. Then, there is also a sense of “anomie” ~ a feeling of personal ineffectiveness and divorce from the society.
It is because of these reasons that some people keep themselves away from the centre of affairs. It is significant that in the parliamentary election of 1984, the voter participation was the highest (64 per cent), but subsequently, the figures remained between 55.3 per cent and 62 per cent. A recent report reveals that the voter-participation in some provinces has reached 70 per cent, but the overall figure is not at all sufficient when compared with the 80 to 90 per cent polling in the Western countries.
Obviously, there are some cogent reasons for this poor turnout. Politics in India has, in recent years, often become a dirty game and this is one of the reasons why many honest and idealistic people take no interest in it. Men of principle and morality are increasingly remaining outside the electoral arena and, in their place, self-seeking persons of less than third- rate quality, have occupied a dominant position in the polity. Moreover, people often feel that sometimes crime and politics go hand-in-hand and the mafia-dons have polluted the social life by their unholy alliance with the ruling party leaders.
The Vora Committee once reported that the crime-world was running a parallel administration in our country and that no effective measure has ever been taken to stem that pot. This is why, many people have lost their interest in political affairs.
Of course, democracy means demos (people’s) kratia (Government or the rule of the people). But if a large number of people stay away from the polling booths, democracy surely becomes a misnomer. Modern democracy has become an indirect system due to the enlargement of territory and population. So, people’s rule through elections has come to the fore. Naturally, it requires the active and full-fledged involvement of the people in electoral affairs.
Hundreds of thousands of people remain away from the polling booths and some others turn up only to cavil that they do not support any candidate fielded in the particular constituency. Hence they press the NOTA (None Of The Above) button. Indian democracy is now suffering from a chronic ailment and it urgently needs to recover. Instead of blaming the absentees, it is imperative to purify our democracy so that it can serve the real interests of the people.