Four sets of interconnected numbers the 2014 Indian election should be about, but isn’t.

23rd February 2015
India - the largest of all democracies is being put through its democratic paces. Jaideep Gupte looks at some of the critical issues that are missing from the election debates.

The beast that is the 2014 General Election in India is aimed at an electorate of 814.5 million people, voting in more than 540 electoral constituencies. The Electoral Commission of India has estimated that this exercise will cost the exchequer nearly £350 million. By comparison, the UK general election in 2005 cost approximately £80 million.

Detail of election map

Campaigning and public debate this time around have been particularly heated. Along with the Indian National Congress, who have controlled a coalition aided majority for the past ten years, and the leading opposition party, the Bharitya Janata Party, who some claim is enjoying a resurgence on the back of a divisive religious agenda despite serious malpractice, we also have a new contender in the mix. The Aam Adami Party, literally translated as ‘the common man’s party’, is an anti-corruption movement that took much of middle-class India by storm in 2011.

24-hour news coverage has frenzied over the candidates and their manifestos, yet, there are critical issues that have not featured in this public debate. Here are four sets of interconnected numbers the 2014 Indian Election should be about, but isn’t:

1. Gender equality

In the 15 times that the lower house of India’s Parliament has been formed since independence, women have only held more than 10% of the elected seats once – 11.4% in the most recent administration. Compare this to Saudi Arabia (19.9%), Pakistan (20.7%), Sudan (24.3%), or Angola (36.8%). Such a low percentage is reflected in the forestalling of a constitutional amendment, which seeks to reserve 33% of seats for women, for the past 18 years.

2. The poor

35% of the world’s $2 per day poor people are Indian. Moreover 61 million children, nearly half of all children under five, in India are stunted due to chronic under-nutrition. This implies a child-stunting rate higher than much of sub-Saharan Africa (48% in India compared to approximately 44% in Chad for example). One of the simplest answers to why this might be points to an unhealthy combination of the impact of open defecation (on average, a child in Chad is exposed to about seven neighbours who defecate in the open per square kilometre, while in India over 200 people per square kilometre defecate in the open), combined with a low status of women who lack the ability to influence child care and ultimately infant and child health outcomes. A national election in India that does not place the poor and malnourished at the front and centre cannot be called ‘representative’, and is only reflective of middle and upper class priorities.

3. Law and Order

The policing system in India is stretched thin - there is just one civil police officer for every 1037 Indian residents, and roughly 85% of those police personnel receive next to no significant training in criminal investigation or crime fighting skills [See Haugen and Boutros, 2014]. This is far below Asia’s regional average of one police officer for 558 people and the global average of 333 people. Outrage over police malpractice and incompetence spilt out onto the streets as thousands demonstrated following the brutal gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in late 2012. That outrage seems to have now largely dissipated, and election manifestos are only geared towards the naming and shaming of police malpractice – a strategy tuned more towards gaining media attention, rather than looking towards systematic and sustainable solutions of police reform.

4. (Un)inclusive cities

For the first time, India has reported a higher population growth rate in its urban centres than in its vast rural landscape. Over the last decade, India’s urban population grew by over 90 million, representing a 31.8% increase. This was 2.6 times the corresponding rise for the rural population. In this, the focus invariably falls on India’s mega-cities, like Mumbai, where billions are being invested in large-scale infrastructure projects like new airport terminals and double-decker flyovers. And yet, the real story of urbanisation in India may lie in the 54% increase in the number of small towns with a density of over 1,000 people per sq. km (from 5,161 in 2001 to 7,935 in 2011). These small and medium sized towns have tiny revenue bases, face low rates of investment, and are beleaguered by crippled basic service provisioning. Furthermore, in the poorest quartile of India’s urban population, only 40% of 12- to 23-month-old children were completely immunised in 2004-2005, 54% of under-five year-olds were stunted, 82% did not have access to piped water at home and 53% were not using a sanitary flush or pit toilet. The urban challenge is therefore vast and multi-dimensional, but the election promises on offer (which revolve mainly around promising legal tenure to those residing in informal settlements) currently do not appear to come anywhere close to offering a sustainable solution.

Of all the electoral permutations, those based on righting the wrongs highlighted by these four staggeringly large sets of interconnected numbers should lead to easy majorities in a multi-party plurality (‘first-past-the-post’) electoral system. Alas, party politics and power have proven to be dangerous bedfellows.

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Jaideep Gupte is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, where his research is on urban violence, poverty and development. He was formerly a Research Fellow at the Urban Design Research Institute, Mumbai.