Come April 19 and the great Indian carnival to elect 543 members of the 18th Lok Sabha begins. A mind boggling 968 million people are eligible to vote in the general elections being held in seven phases, lasting 44 days. Voting ends on 1 June with results being declared three days later. The staggering statistics are a revelation in themselves.

This quinquennial quest( five yearly in a less polysyllabic word!) by the Indian voters to choose the right representatives to govern them has been an ongoing exercise since 1951-52. India declared itself a democratic republic by adopting its constitution in 1950 and following the Westminster model with the triad of Legislature, Executive and Judiciary.

Add to it the buzz of road shows, ‘chai pe charcha’, party flags fluttering from every available public space, billboards looming on roads, posters slapped on walls, the drum rolls, the merry dancing in the streets and you have a Hemingwayesque ‘moveable feast’! Hopefully, the contestants in the fray, reveal their true ‘Mann ki Baat’ to the voter.

India’s parliamentary democracy inspires awe in the global arena as the largest in the world. More so, when most neighbouring countries have gone through political upheavals of various kinds with a melange of coups and dictatorships. Our colonial masters in their departure mode in 1947 made dire predictions, with their usual hauteur , about the inability of the natives to rule themselves.

But chaotic India, a "functional anarchy" in the words of John Kenneth Galbraith , the well-liked US ambassador to India from 1961-63, has had a shining uninterrupted record of conducting elections except for a two year blot of the emergency (1975-77).

The fact that the Election Commission of India (ECI)carries out this humongous exercise without any major glitches is truly jaw-dropping. Occasional booth capturing, scuffles between warring political groups and violence do mar the election scene off and on, but observers and law enforcers on election duty are able to generally keep it free and fair. With electronic voting machines some of the grunt work of the ECI has been eased, but there are complaints of machine-manipulation and not having a more comprehensive and credible paper trail.

Officers on election duty have been climbing hill and dale and even courting danger in conflict-ridden areas to trudge to the boondocks even for a single voter. This dedication to take the ballot box to the voters, to record their precious vote was cinematically brought out in a delightful Hindi language dark comedy called ‘Newton’ released in 2017. No relation to the scientist, the hero, Newton, simply resorts to giving a western twist to his Hindi name, Nutan, to escape teasing by school kids .

The current general elections in India will be a keenly watched event by governments and think tanks around the globe. After being held up as a template of a vibrant democracy for years, despite the illiteracy of a large segment of its population ,the mantle of Indian democracy looks a little tattered.

Domestic and international voices are being raised now on the erosion of democracy . Parakala Prabhakar’s recent book, ‘ The Crooked Timber of New India: Essays on a Republic in Crisis’(2023) is a trenchant commentary on our democracy veering towards an “elected autocracy”.

Ramchandra Guha, one of the finest contemporary historians and an environmentalist, in an essay written in 2019, bemoans the fact that “India was a miracle democracy. But it’s time to downgrade its credentials”. The fourth pillar of democracy(the print and the electronic media), with very few exceptions, is crumbling and is in the silent mode. This chokehold on the media is a George Floyd ‘Black Lives Matter’ moment. Freedom of the press matters supremely for a healthy democracy.

Dissent is a dirty word! Journalists with spine live under threats, are incarcerated or put under house arrest on unproven charges as in the case of Shoma Sen, Gautam NaVlakha and many others. Some outspoken people like Gauri Lankesh and Kalburgi are shot dead in cold blood. When Stan Swamy, an octogenarian Catholic priest and tribal activist, is put in prison as a terrorist in Bhima Koregaon case and dies there after being denied bail , the citizens need to shed the scales from their eyes.

If the party in power puts boulders on a level playing field, other parties have to fight with one hand tied behind their back. The main opposition party is being denied access to their own legit funds. Two chief ministers are behind bars for alleged scams which are not proven so far. The gloves are off since it is ‘Kissa Kursi ka’ for multifarious political parties with ideologies varying in a wide arc from the left to the right.

The ray of hope glimmering in this scenario is the voice of the astute common voter who is more sophisticated in his thinking in his or her concept of what India really means. A viral video interview of Ashok Mochi done by a small time channel brilliantly shows how a true ‘Bharati’ (not merely a Labhaarthi)refuses to be divided on ethno-religious grounds. Unswayed by the bandwagon effect ,he seeks equal opportunities for all Indians.

With politicians proving to be failed Messiahs more often than not , the citizens would be better off in adopting the Athenian direct democracy introduced in 507 BC. by Cleisthenes. The system was called demokratia or rule by people ( from ‘demos’ the people and ‘kratos’ meaning power).

Or else the noose of dictatorship will tighten around our necks. The perils of the absence of free will are obvious. You’ll have a choice between slow poisoning like Navalny in Russia or being shot by a firing squad a la the North Korean Supremo!

Don’t forget that objects in the mirror are closer than you think.

Ushi Kak aka Kashpundit, is an author who revels in wordplay and satire couched in humour. At times she deviates into gravitas. Views Expressed are the writer’s own.

Cover Photograph The Hindu