For those that have dismissed Indian politics as irreversibly sclerotic and corrupt, the results of the UP elections are a surprisingly positive development.
Despite two years of vigorous campaigning in Uttar Pradesh (UP) by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and often touted (by his mother) as India’s next Prime Minister, the Congress Party was walloped in the recent state elections. It captured a measly 28 out of 403 seats in the country’s most populous and politically important state; but the Congress’ damning loss is the Indian voter’s gain.
It is clear from the results of India's state elections this month that voters’ aspirations and demands in the country are changing. The high voter turnout in the state elections, where an additional 20 million people voted in UP alone, is an indication that Indians haven’t given up hope of better governance despite the repeated corruption scandals and policy paralysis that has made international headlines.
Additionally, the public’s spurning of the Congress's populist politics is a strong indication that change is afoot. Economic liberalization and urbanization has spurred voters to look beyond the politics of caste, class, and religion, and focus on development and economic growth. Encouragingly, the public seems to finally be demanding accountability from their elected leaders by returning those that keep their promises to power and doing away with those that fail their duties.
On the other hand, while newly developing regions grow more politically aware and demanding, the Indian urban and elite classes seem to have remained apathetic. Indian cities have registered voter turnout of less than the national average since 1977. Perhaps this is because the privileged distance themselves from politics because the system works in their favor; or perhaps it is because they simply do not believe change is possible. A common refrain of the urban elite that abstains from voting is that there is no 'better' alternative, and that it doesn’t matter whom they vote for, as all the candidates are equally corrupt.
While politicians such as Nitish Kumar and Jairam Ramesh are outstanding exceptions to this criticism, it is undeniable that such inspiring leaders remain far too few and scattered. Nevertheless, the poor and marginalized cannot afford to take this view; they depend on the promise of impending economic development for access to better basic public services and are thus keen to exercise their rights in favor of those that promise it.
In the face of the shocking inequality that exists in India, the educated classes must take a more active role in ensuring the government fulfils its basic duties in redistributing resources effectively. New faces and political talent is required to encourage competition and combat corruption and inefficiency within the system. And yet, India’s educated youth tend to stay away from politics, not just due to apathy, but as the road is notoriously long and hard, and almost impossible to traverse without the right connections.
Even more troublingly, a new study shows that two-thirds of national legislators under the age of 40 are related to India’s current political leaders. This severe political nepotism in choosing the future crop of India’s leaders is a subversion of democracy; the proliferation of political dynasties has no place in Indian government. In order to encourage more talent and diversity, the government needs to introduce meritocratic programs that encourage the participation of youth in government and offer fellowships to attract and train the country's brightest minds to work in the public interest.
There are heartening signs of a new political awakening amongst India's growing voter base, as the public demands increasingly better governance and change. However, for real change to take place, Indian politics must be altered from within by elected officials, as well as through external public pressure. The country’s young population and their evolving aspirations must be represented by those that have earned the right, not inherited it.
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