By now most ordinary citizens across the country have been afflicted by election fatigue, and there are still two phases left. Generally, people just want this great Indian circus to be over. It is not surprising that most senior school students — although conversant with the democratic process through their civics textbooks — are either indifferent or cynical about what has been transpiring on the ground.
“Nationalism” is the buzzword in this year’s election. So far as school students are concerned, they learn to be “patriotic” in many ways. They sing the national anthem lustily, if not always tunefully, from the primary level and they observe Independence Day and Republic Day with fitting fervour. They also learn about India’s freedom struggle, about the richness of their heritage (not selectively, as some would wish) and about India’s achievements after Independence. They know that they belong to the world’s largest democracy and are proud of it, even though they may not know the nuances of the terms “nationalism” and “patriotism” and the difference between them. They seem to be just happy to be Indian.
However, after witnessing the “democratic battle” for the “right to rule”, I do wonder what kind of impressions they are forming about democracy itself. Even if for some reason schoolchildren have decided to be interested in sports or the cinema rather than in election-related news (I don’t blame them), they cannot avoid reading or hearing about the abusive language that is being used, the accusations of corruption and repeated reports of the violation by different candidates of the Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct. Then there are the horrifying stories about rigging and booth-capturing. Their senses and sensibilities are being constantly and unwantedly assaulted as they had a completely different idea of how a democracy should work.
A lack of decency, courtesy and respect for the opponent, the demonstration of hubris and arrogance, excessive egotism and naked hunger for wealth and power and a general unwillingness to address the issues that would affect the well-being of millions mark this year’s election campaigns. Are these the signs of our times? Or are they the signs of the poor education of most of our political leaders?
Even during the last election in 2014, we encouraged our students to follow the main political debates, study the manifesto of each political party and understand the pros and cons of electronic voting machines as compared to ballot papers. This time there is the new VVPAT (voter verifiable paper audit trail), but alas, few have witnessed any proper debates. Yet debate is said to be the backbone of a democracy. Currently, there is either long and fiery self-congratulatory oratory or there are verbal catfights. And truth usually becomes a casualty in most of these exercises.
On the other hand, schoolchildren are taught to debate deftly but decorously. They are penalised if they make any personal remarks in the course of a debate. They are taught that it is the content and the argument that really count, though style and presentation are important too. Their seniors who were avid debaters used to be asked to read famous parliamentary speeches of yesteryears as the quality of these debates was admirable enough to emulate.
However, one aspect of today’s public speaking brings home the fact that Indians are no longer self-conscious about the way they speak English. This indicates that we have finally outgrown our colonial hangups. A Kanhaiya Kumar or a Mamata Banerjee couldn’t be bothered about their diction when they speak in English (and the latter, when she speaks in Hindi as well) — they are spontaneous and uninhibited. It is a delight, though, to hear an occasional Shashi Tharoor when he scores a point in his inimitable English. I hope our students understand that at the end of the day, it is effective communication that matters. But I also hope that they remember the lessons they learnt in school about respecting their opponent, although I won’t be surprised if they ask: “What if he doesn’t deserve to be respected?” Or “What if he abuses me or insults my parents?”
Another thing that is never debated in school is the superiority of any particular religion. Perhaps it is because of the legacy of our Constitution and the secular nature of our country that most schoolchildren belonging to non-denominational schools are taught to respect all religions. It is only when children interact and become friends with children from different religious, regional and cultural backgrounds that our country can hope to be truly integrated. But only if the powers that be desire this kind of integration. For the moment, schoolchildren see that although they have been taught that one of our deep-rooted social evils is casteism, our political leaders do not hesitate to exploit caste, class and religion for political benefits. Thus, inequalities and divisions are being deliberately deepened for selfish gains.
Another point of disillusionment is that students realise that what they were taught in school about accountability and facing the consequences of their actions are futile lessons. They see criminals being rewarded with tickets and people in authority doing and saying things with impunity. They have also learnt that one requires big money in order to even stand as a candidate, and the source of that money is not always above board. Another lesson they have picked up is that turncoats are feted and welcomed with open arms.
The only heartening thing which I hope students have noticed (and which their teachers should certainly point out if they haven’t) is that in a democracy, the most important power is not that of money or might, but the power of the vote. This power belongs to each and every individual who exercises his franchise. Hence, every five years, it is the voter who is king and this is precisely why, despite the ugliness of today’s political campaigns, every Indian has reason to remain proud of belonging to the largest democracy in the world.