The epic task is well underway. The first week it happened in Kerala, Haryana, and some of Assam. The second week it happened in Karnataka and parts of Bihar, Kashmir, and Maharashtra. Last week it was the turn of Tamil Nadu and parts of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. And so on it will go, in nine phases, over a course of 36 days, until an electoral population of over 800 million people in 543 constituencies will have voted, requiring 5 million people to administer the procedure and another 5 million to provide security, and costing taxpayers Rs.35 billion ($580 million). A truly monumental effort. But is it worth it?
India's may be the biggest election but it's not alone in this venture. Spring has arrived and elections are in the air: Afghanistan, South Africa, Turkey, Chili, Belgium, Iraq, and Egypt are part of a longer list. Many people seem disillusioned with their current government and quite ready for a change. Maybe it's just that those who are dissatisfied are the most vocal, creating an impression of general happiness. Maybe it's aggravated by the media focusing on the discontent, and playing it up to fill the non-profitable printed pages and 24-hour news vacuum. Or maybe the desire for change is just natural. The grass always looks greener on the other side.
But it may be more than that. It may be disillusionment with the workings of democracy.
Right now, the undemocratic nations and their rulers seem stronger. Russia has dreams of expansion and Vladimir Putin is amassing troops near Ukraine. China's 'peaceful rise' has morphed to 'quiet assertion' and Xi Jinping is claiming territorial rights in the South China Sea. North Korea is happy to stand alone and Kim Jong-un continues his legacy of threats against South Korea. And Zimbabwe has its ageless Robert Mugabe. They seem to be able to get things done and quickly, while leaders of the democratic nations seem weak. America is gridlocked and Barack Obama seems professorial. The UK is passé and David Cameron seems haunted by his ministers' expense scandals. Canada is usually smooth and complacent but Stephen Harper has tabled an election bill that has roused the citizens and been called "an attack on democracy." South Africa has high unemployment and Jacob Zuma seems morally bankrupt. India is overpopulated and corruption is rampant while Manmohan Singh seems to be asleep. And under them a partisan bunch of politicians, and perhaps even a few criminals, fight it out for power and loot.
Furthermore, democracy seems to have lost its attractive sheen. Even those offered a chance of it seem to be turning their backs on it. Many assumed the unrest in the Middle East was a definite step in the direction of democracy -- but it was not. And most recently, Crimea has walked willingly into the arms of Russia.
There's no doubt that democracy is messy, slow, and inefficient. We in India are particularly aware of that. In the supposed race between China and India, we fare badly because we must do things democratically and with consensus. Crouching tiger, bumbling elephant.
Even famous Indian policewoman and social activist Kiran Bedi recently said that she's prepared to sacrifice the cause of anti-corruption for some good governance. This statement was likely made to justify her shift of support from the anti-corruption and somewhat anarchistic Aam Admi Party to the likely national winner, the Bharatiya Janata Party. But in some sense, India has made this compromise for years now. When frustrations grow in the face of inefficiencies and lack of resources, it's understandable why people would move towards anything that offers a modicum of efficiency and certainty.
Sometimes, given all the effort and cost and inefficiencies of democracy, it may seem as though it's not worth it. But such thinking would be wrong.
All forms of government come with a price. But at least with democracy -- good or bad, right or wrong -- we get the government the majority of us voted for. It may be a bumbling elephant, but it's our bumbling elephant. Furthermore, we usually know what we're getting. Our skeletons are out of the closet and our dirty laundry is washed in public. India has a multitude of problems and they're all quite obvious. America's problems are not only known within the country but newsworthy the world over. What some of the other closets hold is uncertain. And democracy at least espouses equality and human rights.
Despite the chaos, gridlock, incompetence, corruption, and having to repeatedly put up with the expensive circus of elections, we living in democratic countries need to remind ourselves that it's not just our right to vote but our privilege. Elections are a rare and infrequent opportunity for the common people to shape the country they live in. Democracy may be another word for freedom. Few of us would knowingly or willingly give up the freedom to succeed or fail in our own way in exchange for a more efficient life in a gilded cage as dictated by someone else. Mohandas K. Gandhi said, "Good government is no substitute for self government".
Here in India, we hope if we work hard through our spring of discontent, fight for what we want, and vote for what we think best, we can arrive at a summer of some satisfaction.
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer and editor, based in New Delhi. Her articles have appeared in several newspapers and magazines, including the NY Times, IHT, WSJ, FT, and the Atlantic.