Talking Tall

Suddenly, the world has taken to hailing India as its biggest democracy, and the elections to the country’s 16th Lok Sabha the longest ever. Before the reviled TN Seshan, as the country’s Chief Election Commissioner, was forced to turn it into a phased military operation, the globe’s largest democratic exercise had been reduced to a merry carnival of massive misappropriation of the ballot through violence and wholesale booth-capturing.

And, just as today, elections were a big boost to the economy then as well, if only in the industry of country-made weapons and crude bombs. Development was not exactly off the agenda either– what with slogans of gharibi hatao which mysteriously morphed into gharibon ko hatao. Well, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

For example, estimates by credible institutions put India’s total campaign expenses at around Rs 30, 000 crore. Add to it the logistical costs of moving thousands-upon-thousands of security personnel from once corner of the peninsula to the other to prevent the polls from degenerating into a mirror image of its political leaders, and one may begin to have an idea of how precious its democracy is. But amid hysterical debates on growth and governance, and ill-disguised arguments to dispense with silly ideas of secularism, everybody seems to have forgotten that half of India does not go to the loo. Not that this is some physiological miracle or anatomical anomaly, but that half of India simply does not have them – loos, that is. So, the nearest railway track – a tourist attraction – or open maidan, or just the bushes.

Toilets for the poor do not make for attractive election issues, with or without development. No leader in his right mind would hope to win elections by asking masses to mind their s#*#. That is best left to actors who can’t boast of an American accent and have the gumption to paint a dirty picture of themselves. It wins prizes, not elections that give you the right to play fast and loose with a massive budget.

The bright sparks in the Planning Commission, or policy-making cells, or spin-doctoring bureaus, may contest and confound the world’s sharpest minds on issues nestled in the Himalayas, but have obviously found themselves terribly handicapped in denying the UN’s hard data on an unavoidable human need that can be fulfilled neither by the military hardware put on display national days, nor by the stock-market indices that leap forward every time right-wing icons inch closer to the Prime Minister’s office.