Elections lack substantive agenda

The author notes that there is no focused debate on real issues. Only cacophony prevails. “Past experience tells us that the so-called “manifestos” of the political parties are hardly ever practically implemented. The consequences of the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario are summed up in this adage, “If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got”, says he.

Another season of elections is upon the Indian voters. There are the usual activities – promulgation of model code of conduct, distribution of tickets by political parties, switching parties and turning rebel for not getting the party ticket, tall promises and distribution of liquor/drugs to woo voters, etc.

However, candidates never seem to engage in constructive debates on issues – only complaining and mud-slinging. Few candidates spell out their vision on education, healthcare, farmers’ plight, agriculture, environment, drug-abuse, traffic reforms, etc. Having lived in the United States for more than four decades, I can unequivocally say that at every level of the democratic election process, there are substantive debates between/among candidates.

Many times, debates are what makes or breaks a candidate. Debates can expose the shallowness of candidates on issues. Sometimes, the statements that the candidates make or how they treat people can determine the outcome of elections. For example, in 2006, a senatorial candidate of the US Republican Party from the state of Virginia, George Allen, called a field operative (an American of Indian origin) of his Democratic opponent, who was ‘videotracking’ Allen, ‘macaca’ – meaning ‘monkey’. Allen, who was earlier touted as a strong future presidential contender, lost the senate race simply because of this racial slur. Global Language Monitor named ‘macaca’ as the most politically incorrect word of 2006.

There are plenty of political candidates in India, who call each other worse names than ‘macaca’. In India, there is a need for a Commission on Debates. In the USA, presidential debates are sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates that was established in 1987 to provide the best possible information to voters and to conduct research and educational activities related to debates. The League of Women Voters (LWV), a civic organization, founded in 1920 to help women take a larger role in public affairs, also sponsored presidential debates before 1987. Such organizations are needed in India to organize debates among candidates at least during the parliamentary and legislative assembly elections. I am sure there are plenty of highly qualified (hopefully unbiased) TV anchors and newspaper editors who can moderate such debates.

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For example, public debates are a need in Punjab on major issues like drugs and corruption, acknowledged widely but rarely addressed by the political parties. Someone has aptly said if you were intent on bringing down a powerful country that you would not want to confront militarily, orchestrate that country’s destruction from within. Getting the youth – the future of the country – addicted to drugs can destroy that country without firing a shot or destroying infrastructure. In 2012, Jim Yardley, a reporter for New York Times, commented on the issue of drug abuse in Punjab, saying, “Throughout the border state of Punjab, whether in villages or cities, drugs have become a scourge.

Opium is prevalent, refined as heroin or other illegal substances. Schoolboys sometimes eat small black balls of opium paste, with tea, before classes. Synthetic drugs are popular among those too poor to afford heroin.” An overwhelming majority of addicts were said to be between the ages of 15 and 35, with many of them unemployed and frustrated by unmet expectations. Yardley further wrote that even though around 60 per cent of all illicit drugs confiscated in India were seized in Punjab, during the Punjab state elections of 2012, candidates rarely spoke about drug abuse, and that India’s Election Commission indicated that some political workers were actually giving away drugs to buy votes; party workers in some districts distributed coupons that voters could redeem at pharmacies. This is really a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Punjab that once was the most progressive state of India.

Those at the helm of affairs seem to be playing Russian roulette with the lives of youngsters who instead of becoming a ‘demographic dividend’ turn out to be a liability for the society. The Corruption Perception Index ranks countries based on the perceived level of corruption in the public sector on a scale of 0 (meaning highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). India had a score of 36/100. According to researcher Finn Heinrich, corruption hurts the poor most. The poor in poor countries will not be able to get out of poverty until they tackle corruption. Corruption is rampant in India. When someone was asked ‘Where is the capital of India?’ a pejorative answer was “Swiss Banks,” referring to the black money hidden there by politicians. India, where most of the public-sector employees stand with their hand out to do the job that they are already paid to do, has become a laughing stock of the world. Governments must enforce the laws in right earnest to combat this menace of corruption.

In 2011, India’s overall literacy rate was 74.04 per cent. The literacy rate for men was much higher (82.14 per cent) than that for women (65.46 per cent). Punjab’s comparative literacy rate figures were: 76.2 per cent (overall), 81.5 per cent (men) and 71.3 per cent (women). There is a big gulf between the urban and rural literacy rates. The literacy rate for rural women needs to be improved drastically by creating educational opportunities for them. The highest literacy rates were for Kerala: 93.9 per cent (overall), 96 per cent (men) and 92 per cent (women). Punjab has a long way to go to compete with states like Kerala. We read daily in newspapers about the pitiable condition of infrastructure of government schools, the lack of teachers, flawed educational policies, and scams associated with every educational scheme. Literacy is the core to democracy.

How many candidates in the Lok-Sabha races are addressing the literacy issue and quality of education in Punjab? In Punjab, water pollution caused by chemical toxicity is a serious problem. According to Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal, laws to control pollution remain on paper only and in realty, very little or no efforts are made to control water and air pollution and poisonous chemicals, such as cyanide that continue to emanate from factories in Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Phagwara, freely flow in river waters. Such chemicals can lead to diseases like cancer. In Muktsar, between 2001 and 2009, 1074 deaths were attributed to cancer. During the same period, 211 cancerrelated deaths occurred in the Lambi constituency. In March 2009, Dr. Carin Smit of South Africa examined hair samples of mentally retarded children from the Malwa region and found that 80 per cent samples contained uranium in such large quantities as could make children sick.

According to the World Health Organization, 15 microgram of uranium per liter of water is regarded as safe limit, but Bhabha Atomic Research Center found uranium levels ranging from 2.2 to 244.2 microgram in water samples from the Malwa region. Arsenic is also found in Malwa water, and chronic exposure to arsenic increases the chances of getting cancer of the lungs, bladder, and kidneys. High-quality cancer research centers and hospitals in the Malwa region should be a high priority of any government coming to power. Much has been written about the need for crop diversification away from wheat-rice system in Punjab toward high-value crops, such as fruits and vegetables. The problems created by the wheat-rice system are the result of lack of visionary, far-sighted policies. The people entrusted with providing solutions are mostly the same whose shortsighted policies created the problems to begin with. Infusion of fresh ideas is needed. Cultivation of pulses, oilseeds, and cereals such as maize must be added to the mix of crops grown.

Political agenda must include promotion of an environment beneficial to life through the protection and wise management of natural resources to ensure sustainability of agriculture. I have lived in Ludhiana for a number of years and have traveled the length and breadth of the Punjab. In big cities, one invariably comes across snarling traffic. Generally, it becomes a headache for the travelers. This again is due to the lack of visionary planning. Why allow so many vehicles on the road without first insuring needed infrastructure? Highways should be built first to accommodate the anticipated traffic. Police can and should ensure that only those who have passed both written and road tests be issued a driving license. So many young school-going children are seen running around on scooters; most of them may not even be eligible to get a driving license.

India is poised to overtake China in population by 2030. Politicians in India rarely talk about tackling this important issue. Greater and greater burden continues to be placed on land and agriculturists to produce more and more food grains to feed the burgeoning population while efforts to control population are non-existent. These are some of the issues that must be debated. All Lok-Sabha candidates must be cognizant of these issues and be able to tell the voters where they stand on each of the issues. Past experience tells us that the so-called “manifestos” of the political parties are hardly ever practically implemented. The consequences of the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario are summed up in this adage, “If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got.”

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