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Bihar: The focus shifts to development, finally – columns

Over the last decade, there has been a trend in decreasing popularity of leaders who make grandiose promises in European and Asian countries and the United States (US). This is borne out by a survey conducted under the YouGov Cambridge Globalism Project in more than 25 countries. Its findings, published by the The Guardian, reveal a trust deficit between the public and politicians in eight European countries in which leaders came to power on populist platforms — many of them made highly exaggerated claims and promises. In the previous decade, this brand of politics saw political parties and politicians enjoy a groundswell of popularity — approval ratings increased for many of them from 7% to 25%. (NEXT SENTENCE REMOVED)

The survey shows that, in the last decade, among the leaders whose popularity has taken a hit is United States (US) President Donald Trump who is fighting for re-election. Among the other big names who have seen the ground slip away from under their feet are France’s Marine Le Pen, president of the National Rally party, Matteo Salvini, leader of the opposition in Italy, Victor Orbon, prime minister of Hungary and Per Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats. Most of these leaders espouse a Right-wing ideology. In some countries, the fall from grace was substantial.

Making exaggerated promises, it would seem, yielded short-term gains but eventually had an adverse impact on the fortunes and public image of several leaders in Denmark, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Poland and Sweden. With the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been tremendous anger in some of these countries as people perceive that their governments have not been transparent about the management of the disease and not provided data. Citizens in many developed countries believe that their leaders have been provoking emotional responses, rather than equipping them with scientific knowledge. The majority of the public believes that they need to know about the scientific tools which are needed to deal with such pandemics.

Back in India, political discourse here has been largely based on unsubstantiated, even false, promises from various leaders in many election campaigns. Sometimes they conjure up an enemy from thin air, and, at other times, they hammer away at the shortcomings of opponents and rival parties, but they rarely come up with innovative and workable ideas which can change lives for the better. With all parties continuing to practise this sort of negative politics, the options before voters are shrinking. The fact that our leaders seem to have the wrong priorities explains why issues such as caste and religion trump development, employment, health and education.

Take the Bihar assembly elections. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s Tejashwi Yadav has promised that after forming the government, he will give one million jobs to young citizens. In its manifesto, released the next day, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) said it would provide employment to 1.9 million people if its alliance is voted to power. Now other parties have been compelled to make similar, tall promises. Will these promises come true? Past experience does not suggest so.  

During the first phase of the elections on October 28, when reporters tried to ascertain the pulse of voters, three issues came to the fore — jobs, food security and development. Most voters were worried about unemployment, a situation which applies to Rajasthan and Haryana also where the situation is worse than Bihar, according to figures released last month.

The Bihar election results will show how deeply this issue has had an impact on people, reeling from reverse migration and the pandemic. Migration and unemployment are likely to feature substantially in the upcoming assembly elections in states such as Assam, Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. If that happens, it would be a heartening turn of events for democracy. The apathy and silence of voters have made politicians arrogant. The resentment and anger over the fact that issues concerning people’s lives are not being addressed will compel politicians to emerge from their comfort zones. They will be obliged to work in the public interest and be held accountable for their promises during the campaign. Here, we see a glimmer of hope in the Bihar elections.

Bihar is known as a land where the first green shoots of democracy became visible centuries ago. Now in the elections of October-November, 2020, Bihar seems to be witnessing a paradigm shift in the way politics is conducted. Instead of only making empty promises, politicians are being forced to address relevant issues since these seem to have become the deciding factor in these elections. If this trend holds, the world’s largest democracy will also become world’s finest democracy.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan

The views expressed are personal

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