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Victory for Goan democracy

Celebrate the Goan electorate. Even in these cynical times, even with the dumbing down by ranting media, over 80% of the electorate showed up at the polls. Whatever the result, the citizens of India’s smallest state have once again demonstrated that they are committed to the democratic political process, no less than anyone else, anywhere. The turnout — along with the previous benchmark from Goa in 2012 — is among the highest in Indian history, and a criterion most of the rest of the world can only dream of emulating.

Put Goa’s percentages into context. Donald Trump ascended to the top job in the United States in the recent elections when only 57% of Americans cast a ballot. In the peculiar system adopted by “the world’s greatest democracy” he actually lost the popular vote by some three million, but still ascended to become “the most powerful man in the world”. Narrow focus and, you see, credentials for the new president to wreak havoc on the planet were granted by no more than a quarter of potential voters. If just a few thousand more had turned out in a handful of towns and counties, we might now be reckoning with the first female president of the USA in Hillary Clinton.

Cross the Atlantic to the United Kingdom, and stark failure of non-representation in recent elections becomes even more dramatic. The extraordinary “Brexit” referendum — calling for retreat from decades of political consensus, and complete withdrawal from the European Union — attracted roughly 72% of potential voters. That may seem like a high number, but studies by British Election Survey show that a significant proportion of ‘Remain’ voters stayed home because their preferred result appeared to be assured victory. Now they pay a steep price. Much they have always cherished is unravelling fast.

Surveyed across its massive complexity and diversity, India’s democracy is both a wonder and a sham. Huge numbers appear at giant rallies, but with everyone routinely and openly compensated with cash or other bribes. Across the country, strongmen and satraps cajole, induce and bully “vote banks” with impunity. Right here, in comparatively enlightened Goa, it was startling to learn that many hundreds of servicemen trooped out of their quarters in two separate precincts to vote en bloc. Can anyone doubt this was diktat, most probably from the ministerial office?

Instead of weakness, such shenanigans probably should be considered tribute to the robustness of Goan democracy. No matter how much dirty money amassed, or the hulking muscle barely hidden in the shadows, the local goons still need votes to remain in power. They remain visibly anxious and uncertain about their fates. These elections were a reckoning that couldn’t be avoided — both the golden feature of this political system and the potential flush valve as well. As Winston Churchill famously said, “democracy is the worst form of government in the world, except for all the others that have been tried.”

Goan democracy has repeatedly set unique and significant yardsticks. In the highly insightful 2015 book, ‘India’s First Democratic Revolution’, Goa University’s own Parag Porobo pointed out, “in its very first election [Goa] surprised the country by bringing to power a government that, with the Bahujan Samaj as its political base, was the first of its kind. Long before lower castes elsewhere in the nation had recognized as a group what their numerical strength could do for them in a democracy, Goa’s Bahujan Samaj — a loose conglomeration of lower castes — rallied behind Dayanand Bandodkar, a lower caste mine owner who eventually went on to become chief minister.”

That surge of democratic power translated to visionary policy. Porobo writes, “when the entire country was driven by Nehru’s vision of investments in industries and higher education as an apparatus of development, Goa, through Bandodkar’s governance, prioritized human development through concentrated efforts on schooling and health.”

From a dismal 30% literacy when the Portuguese left, to one of the highest levels in the developing world. From feudalism to widespread empowerment, and the famously decent “quality of life” which tops all Indian charts. These aspects of contemporary Goan reality aren’t incidental or accidental, or remotely attributable to the colonial past. Instead, they’re the direct expression of the will of the people in the postcolonial era. Those concrete results — also paired with the stunning Opinion Poll result in 1967, which rejected merger with Maharashtra — have left a lasting faith in democratic processes in the state electorate. The stellar turnout at the polls on February 4 demonstrates the sentiment remains undimmed. [TOI]

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