The Indian Express | Rohini Nilekani writes: Notes from our 2014 campaign for 2024

Mar 22, 2024


The headlines brought back sharp memories of a hot summer wind. Exactly 10 years ago, we had embarked on a grueling campaign for my husband Nandan Nilekani from Bangalore South constituency for the Lok Sabha elections of 2014.

Everyone knows how that particular movie ended, but there was so much we learnt which may be relevant for the sequel now playing out around the country. The first lesson that 900 million plus voters could acknowledge is that politics may be the world’s most difficult profession. We personally witnessed how politicians work 24/7, 365 days a year, surprisingly often without rewards, to meet voter demands. So, can we give a thumbs up to the thousands of candidates from dozens of parties, of whom only 543 will win, but who will all keep our vital electoral democracy humming?

The second issue is that too many voters, especially from the elite urban classes, still take the elections too lightly. They should not. India does not have a compulsory vote like 21 countries do. Our elections are more of a celebration of the right to vote than a cumbersome duty.

But we let ourselves down when we don’t participate in the free and fair elections India is so proud of, when we don’t vote. Sure, our elections come in the way of the precious summer holidays; sure, some of us may find our names removed from the voter list. But think hard of what would happen if a majority thought it was not worth their time to vote. What kind of country would India be?

The third, critical question is what people should expect from their candidates. Most voters may not have internalised that we will be choosing those whose main job is to minister parliament as good law makers. The media does not highlight this enough. Politicians only rarely talk about it themselves.

MPs have the representative responsibility to reflect the aspirations of their constituents, the power of the purse responsibility to approve the expenditure of

the government, and some oversight over the executive. But their main job is to participate in understanding, debating on and helping pass legislation that enables the nation to function smoothly, fairly and without conflict. In our experience of the 2014 campaign, that is not what the voters had understood or even wanted.

Walking for months through many slums, middle class neighbourhoods and fancy apartment complexes, we listened deeply to the people all day long. Some moments were particularly illuminating.

One sweltering day, in a fancy apartment complex, after my impassioned speech on how Nandan, if elected, would help drive systems reform, one man nodded wisely and said, “Wonderful. But what will he do about my crazy neighbour who feeds stray dogs at 1 am?”

In middle class neighbourhoods, people asked what we would do for street lights, or to keep their park green. In one such park, a lady probed — “You want my vote free or what? What will you give me?” When I mumbled something about a hardworking, ethical candidate, she was amused.

In slum areas, people were still desperate for basic services. “Bari neeru kodi, saaku,” they begged. If you can provide water, it is enough. Others spoke of electricity, transport, and hospitals. This was their one chance to pour out their frustrations to candidates and their crews.

Eventually, our team realised, even in a developed and educated city like Bengaluru, people want personally from their MPs what they should collectively organise for, or solicit from their corporators, local bureaucrats or MLAs. They want a direct solution to their local irritants, not abstract rewards.

None of these demands are unreasonable. Many, especially on basic services, are critical to meet. The question is, who should be fulfilling them? It cannot possibly be up to the MP, who has no authority or legally sanctioned resources apart from a meagre MPLAD scheme, to meet any of these aspirations. If he or she has to please such a voter, the winning candidate has to perform a politics of patronage and brokerage.

A modern democracy needs enlightened politicians to work with efficient bureaucrats to solve forever more complex issues. Too often, our laws and policies are signed off on without any discussion. Too often, we the people can’t see how that affects our day-to-day lives.

To take just one example, the Telecommunications Act 2023 cements the power of the government to suspend internet services. No urban voter even knows anymore how to live without the internet for more than a few hours. Do we not need our MP to intervene to ensure internet shutdowns can be ordered only in the rarest of rare circumstances?

For the nearly 2 crore new young voters, policy issues may be critical for what they care about most — the future of work. Similarly, for women enrolling in larger numbers than ever, laws and rules on safety and health, equity and access, may be even more important than immediate relief.

Good parliamentarians make good laws. Good laws make for a good society. Good laws when well implemented enrich a democracy with justice, equity, rights and protections. Good laws written today create a better future for countless generations ahead.

Our MPs need not be distracted by local issues, for which we must hold local governments accountable. Surely we can spare 543 leaders to focus on ideas that matter more than we can immediately perceive.

Ten years ago, our campaign team treaded the heated streets, canvassing for strategic votes. In a few weeks, we will ink our fingers as members of the world’s largest and proudest voting population.

We, the samaaj of India can deepen India’s democracy by electing those candidates who will design good laws to nourish us all.



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