The global press is rife with news of devastating wars, disease, famine, societal inequities, impact of global warming, democracies in decline, sustainability issues, stagnation of Sustainable Development Goal Index, and leadership issues. These are not ‘their’ problems only, as we increasingly know that it impacts us invariably, and dearly.

For us in India, the ignorance plays out in terms of the crippling agrarian crisis that we know of, but seldom acknowledge. The alarming data of farmers suicide, depleting water levels, debt burden, erratic energy, collapsing farm support prices, deficiencies in agriculture produce market committees etc., gather unattended dust in stashed academic reports and odd reportage. The forgotten promise of “doubling farmers’ income by 2022”, adds to the bizarreness of politics, that is India.

Another disconcerting picture of the challenges that abound is that in 2023, India has slipped four ranks to land a shocking 111 out of 125 in the ‘Global Hunger Index’. This is an analysis of data on undernourishment, child stunting, child wasting and child mortality. The methodology was pooh poohed by a Minister, rather cavalierly, insensitively, and damagingly.

While there is a statistical improvement in score from 2015, it is in line with global trends that have pushed up other countries much faster, at the cost of India’s ranking. We have scored the lowest of all countries on the parameter of child wasting. This is the data of children under the age of five with low weight for their height, reflecting acute undernutrition.

Expectedly, the report was dismissed by officials who reportedly noted, “the GHI continues to be a flawed measure of hunger and does not reflect India’s true position. The index is an erroneous measure of hunger and suffers from serious methodological issues.”

But what the official rejection of the Global Hunger Index report belies is the fact that free grains are being provided to 813 million beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). That itself is a frightening reality of the precarious situation as it exists.

Globally, there is an example of what happens when intolerance, illiberalism and undemocratic preferences get normalised in the governance of a sovereign. Authoritarians like Vladimir Putin can invoke war and bloodshed, whereas the even more unhinged and amoral leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu can partake revenge, not against a terror organisation like Hamas specifically, but knowingly, disproportionately and targeting thousands of civilians and especially children.

These are important examples of inevitable consequences of what happens when inclusivity, secularism and democratic traditions are forsaken at the far more electorally gratifying (with horrifying subsequent results) pandering of divisiveness, hate mongering, and reimagining of history. Eerily and serendipitously, both Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu’s false reimagining of events included the invocation of ‘Nazis’.

It was the ‘Arab Nazis’ for one, it was the ‘Neo-Nazis’ taking control in Kiev, for the other. Many gullible people were seduced by the purported muscularity of their hateful policies and false revisionism, the rest is history.

Our own neighbourhood, which was always given to traditional ‘enemies’ in Pakistan and China, has been joined by a lot more in recent times. The equation with the traditional enemies is at its worst ever with no signs of improvement, whereas the purportedly domineering attitude with smaller neighbours has given rise to a condescending ‘Big Brother’ attitude.

This attitude irritates Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and strong anti-Delhi forces are emerging in their local politics. The strategic backyard of Maldives has recently campaigned and won on a ‘India Out’ pitch, a sad regression from the past.

Myanmar with the Junta and Bhutan are showing nervousness in retaining an openly pro-India stance and have started talking of ‘maintaining equal relations’ with all their neighbours. The euphemistic allusion to China is unmistakable.

This is not to say that ups-and-downs do not happen, or that we had seamless relations with all our neighbouring countries earlier, but for the entire neighbourhood to be so wary and grumpy is worrying, to say the least. That China is not exactly a better bet, with its own proven history of debt-traps, is not something we can take credit for. we must own up to our own perceived friendliness or otherwise, as imagined by neighbours.

Elections in a democracy afford a genuinely priceless moment to make more informed choices, to force the powers-that-be to concentrate on issues that truly matter, and to question both the government and opposition. But what do we do, and where are our priorities?

Are we asking questions, seeking solutions for the agrarian crisis? Are we questioning the spending pattern and allocation by sectors to understand priorities? Are we questioning the implementation of manifesto promises? Are we asking for tangible, concrete and verifiable plans to address the socio-economic distress and inequities in communities?

Are we asking for accountability and responsibility without whataboutery, without meaningless context, or without bluff and generalities? Are we allowing questions to be freely asked, is the so-called free press, indeed so? The short answer is NO, we are not doing anything of the sort.

There are State elections due in Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana. Where were the pertinent issues raised beyond the jingoistic hyperboles? Vile comments and partisan cliches tend to suppress rather than either question or answer with solid facts.

Has the currency of hate become so powerful and relevant that it needs no further probing, accountability, or correction? Each party accuses the other of ‘freebies’, even as each panders to the same. Each accuses the other of dynasty, even as each panders to the same without exception.

Each accuses the other of having criminals and rogues within ranks, even as each nominates its own. No one has an economic plan for national rejuvenation beyond promises. No one has the will to rein in its so-called, but deliberately patronised, ‘fringe elements’.

Each party, without exception, has squandered precious resources under its control towards wasteful monuments, statues, and theatrical events? Only those with the ‘monopoly on truth’ get to define the dominant narrative and manufactured ‘truth’.

Ideology is a joke, people seek ‘tickets’ and jump ships on not getting them. ‘Electability’ not suitability is the norm. Caste matters, religion matters and muscle power matters, not the candidates’ education, nor their personal integrity or body of work.

Seventysix years after Independence, the world’s largest democracy is deflected, distracted, and mesmerised by the meaningless passions of politicians, as they go about diminishing one institution after the other. Issues like caste census, religious sites, xenophobia and puritanism rule the roost as part of the winning electoral spiel.

It is not one party, but each one of them, whether they sit in the treasury bench or in the opposition benches that is complicit, with the charade of ‘manufactured outrage’, hyper-nationalism and ‘event-management’ replacing meaningful debate on issues that concern the socio-economic and harmonious development of communities.

If this be the proverbial semi-final to 2024 then it augurs poorly on the choices of governance, and therefore the future. The quality of content, issues and political alternatives is frightening in the election season, convenient finger pointing at the past, at ‘others’, at neighbouring countries, or even ridiculing those who do end up posing a few uncomfortable questions with vested interests, has been done to death. Civilisational and constitutional India deserves better, much better.

Lt. General Bhopinder Singh (PVSM) is the former Lieutenant Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Pondicherry. Views expressed are the writer’s own.