The raucous election campaign for the largest election in the world's history, enabling potentially 814 million people to vote, and involving 930,000 polling stations, and 1.9 million electronic voting machines, is underway in India with the Election Commission of India and its model code of conduct taking center-stage.
There have been multiple "opinion polls" some with decidedly unscientific methodology, without requisite sample size and indeed missing appropriate State-wise stratification, but nonetheless proclaiming a change in government. That is happening in a certain sense, of course, because of the impending now definite retirement of Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, who incidentally had told me in 1989 that he was planning to retire then, at his then-ripe age of 57 from his then-position of Secretary General of the South Commission, Geneva, with which I had gone to build collaboration for my Harvard University Commission on Health Research of which I was then the Assistant Director. At the time, Dr. Singh was not in party politics though he had been a technocrat in the Indian government and in multilateral organizations.
Mud-slinging has begun in earnest, as is the democratic tradition everywhere, with social media now being the prime means for functionaries and flacks of all types pitching in to show opponents in the worst possible light. Naturally, the public's views on politics and politicians have taken ever steeper declines in approval ratings. Many now believe that democracy is an entirely wasteful expenditure of money and time, and politicians are self-serving abominations. While there are indeed some MPs who don't appear to have any discernible reasons to be in parliament, is the characterization accurate for parliamentarians as a whole? I try to show another side of the year-after-year of struggle to stay afloat in the political system, and sometimes selfless and publicity-less service, and the party ticket to contest given in some cases sparingly after much proverbial "sweat and tears."
Beyond the $583 million that the Election Commission will spend, candidates and their political parties are estimated to be spending an estimated $5 Billion, with the funds going right to the base of the economic pyramid, to those who stick posters, paint walls with party slogans and the names of candidates, distribute leaflets with the party symbol and list of key points of each party's manifesto, go door to door to canvass, make and serve snacks, transport volunteers, deploy audio-visual equipment, create podiums and backdrops for the candidates' speeches, etc.
Each parliamentary constituency now is getting to be very hard to campaign in, with over a million voters on average, and therefore the cost and human effort of reaching potential voters is becoming tremendous. The candidate will have to make speeches and shake hands and "namaste" voters in as many localities and segments as possible, and that is a real challenge especially for those not rooted in the constituency. Further, there is some wasted effort because sometimes, participants at election events and wherever crowds gather are either voters from neighboring constituencies or unregistered for other reasons.
Candidates Bring Diverse Skills
Highlighted below are two contestants from the largest political parties, with diametrically different ideologies, interests and expertise, but a passion to serve that has been transparent for decades. Both are veterans of the students' movement, who have spent 35-40 years each working their way up the political ladder, from students' union elected representatives to now contesting for the Lower House of Parliament (Lok Sabha). It is important to remember that while the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) is also central, the key difference is that a majority of seats is required only in the Lower House in order to form the government. Also, of course, in India, for elections to the Rajya Sabha, the voters are legislators in Indian States. For national legislation to pass, however, the assent of both Houses is essential.
Senior Supreme Court Advocate Mr. Arun Jaitley: Amritsar
As a 22 year old, Arun Jaitley found himself a political prisoner at New Delhi's Tihar Jail with the top leaders of the Opposition, when fundamental rights were abrogated through the declaration of the Emergency from 25 June 1975 until its withdrawal on 21 March 1977. Then, he was the President of the Delhi University Students' Union and a leading light among students supporting the nationwide agitation of the late Opposition leader Mr. Jayaprakash Narayan. Mr. Jaitley also served as national Secretary of the students' wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Arun Jaitley has since risen steadily in the BJP becoming national General Secretary of the party, alongside his practice as a lawyer in the Supreme Court and several High Courts, later a Minister, then Leader of the Opposition in the Upper House, and now as a Lok Sabha candidate. Mr. Jaitley hails from a Punjabi family of lawyers that had to migrate to Delhi from Lahore following the partition between India and Pakistan of erstwhile British India. On his mother's side, the family is from Amritsar, the Lok Sabha seat he is now contesting for. The Amritsar parliamentary constituency extends to just a few miles from India's border with Pakistan, and is expected to become a center of the projected expansion in India-Pakistan trade.
Today, Arun Jaitley is the articulate face of the BJP, commenting relentlessly on TV, print media, Twitter, Facebook, and every rising channel, including Google+ Hangout. In the Upper House, he was a skilled debater on legislation and dueled frequently with the Prime Minister and leading Ministers. He is legendary for the research work he does in preparing for each opportunity to speak or write. Should the BJP-led coalition come to power, Arun Jaitley will hold a major cabinet portfolio and he is a confidant of both BJP Prime Ministerial candidate Mr. Narendra Modi and also BJP President Mr. Rajnath Singh.
Prof. Omprakash Mishra: Balurghat
From orphanage to scholar and professor, and long-time General Secretary and Spokesman of the Congress Party in the State of West Bengal, life has taken many twists and turns for my old friend from New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, Prof. Omprakash Mishra, contesting for the Indian Parliamentary constituency of Balurghat from the State of West Bengal. As a five year old, Omprakash Mishra lost his parents one after the other -- his late father to assassination for his pioneering leadership of a trade union and his mother the next month. From those harsh beginnings, Omprakash Mishra through his dedication to studies -- doing well throughout in school and college in Balurghat, (the constituency from where he is contesting) and securing a Master's and M.Phil from New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and then returning to teach at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and to later head its department of international relations. Prof. Mishra has served as a Member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) to the Prime Minister and was Pro-Vice Chancellor of Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). In addition, he is the founder and Member Secretary of the Global India Foundation, a rising Think Tank, a Member of the Board of Governors of MDI, Gurgaon, one of India's leading business schools, and Member, Executive Council, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies (MAKAIAS), a research institution of the Indian Ministry of Culture. Since his youth, Omprakash Mishra has been in politics; he was twice elected as General Secretary of the Students' Union at Balurghat College in West Bengal, and has been a prominent leader of the Congress Party's students' wing in West Bengal, at JNU, and later a Member of the All India Congress Committee (AICC). Prof. Mishra is an avid user of social media and provides insightful commentary on his Facebook page.
Prof. Omprakash Mishra took care of the "world's tallest woman's" pituitary adenoma tumor
Beyond all these credentials, one aspect I want to highlight is how he successfully managed the care for the "world's tallest woman" -- who was suffering from a pituitary adenoma tumor -- where the pituitary tumor secretes excessive amounts of growth hormone. He quietly provided every type of help to her and her family who are illiterate and without means to manage such a complex situation. Most of the media missed that it was Prof. Omprakash Mishra who enabled the patient to be seen in hospitals in West Bengal and then at India's most prominent national hospital, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, where her pituitary tumor in the base of the brain was operated and removed by skilled neurosurgeons. See here and here.
Prof. Mishra even ensured that special facilities were provided for the patient en-route from West Bengal by working with the leadership of India's railways. But he never sought to get publicity for all that work over many months. I know about his efforts because he and I discussed the case several times during that period. It is one example of the tireless work that serious candidates do in their quest to serve in the national Parliament.
Prof. D.P. Tripathi, MP (Rajya Sabha)
I have previously highlighted another great friend, a former JNU students' union president, Prof. D.P. Tripathi, known to his friends as DPT, who was subsequently elected to the Upper House of the Indian Parliament by the legislators of the State of Maharashtra. While he is not contesting for a Lower House seat this time, he continues to be very active in the election campaign and as the national spokesperson of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), DPT often appears on multiple TV channels to give forthright viewpoints or to debate with spokespersons of other parties.
In a nutshell, while problems abound, it is simply wrong to tarnish all candidates with the same tar-brush. There are many types of people with passion, dedication and commitment to the parliamentary process, and despite all its faults, it does appear that there is no other system that is particularly better at this time. Needless to say, the US presidential system of government has not been exemplary, given the bitter political divisions and the excessive desire solely to checkmate one another. The results of the momentous Parliamentary election are awaited on May 16, 2014 in India and the world over.