The results of India's general election released on May 23 saw a landslide victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a second term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The marathon voting process spread out over five weeks had begun on April 11. India’s general elections are a mammoth undertaking and the world’s biggest exercise in democracy.
In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, Indian Ambassador in Turkey Sanjay Bhattacharyya spoke about different facets of Indian democracy. He also spoke about priorities of the new government and growing relations with Turkey to face common challenges.
Anadolu Agency: Conducting elections in India is a mammoth exercise. For those who are less familiar, can you enumerate what are challenges to ensure people are granted free choice to elect their representatives?
Ambassador Sanjay Bhattacharyya: Indian elections are the biggest festival of democracy in the world and they are celebrated in a joyous mood. Over 900 million voters took part in the elections. There are amazing stories of dedicated electoral officials braving 60 kilometers of jungles to collect one vote, or helping a centurion and other elderly cast ballots in an old age home, or looking after the baby while the mother casts her vote and many other such beautiful incidents. The elections were conducted by the independent Election Commission of India in seven phases to ensure free and fair elections and to encourage maximum participation. Due to use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), the results are declared within a day, although there are constituencies with over 2 million voters.
Q: The campaign during the just concluded elections at times turned bitter. What are the lessons learnt? And is there any potential that it may affect the Indian polity in the long run?
Bhattacharyya: Elections are the true test of a democracy in which the voters reign supreme. Given the vibrancy of India’s democratic traditions, it is natural that elections are fought hard by the candidates. But they all realize that they must respond to the ethos of India and the aspirations of the people. Eventually, everyone accepts the outcome of the elections and gets down to work for a common agenda.
Q: Political parties in India have often raised issue on the credibility of the EVMs. How far these machines are insulated from any interference and has it now been completely decided that India will never revert back to the paper and ballot polls?
Bhattacharyya: EVMs are a sign of tremendous technological progress in our elections. They are standalone devices, not linked to the internet and totally tamper-proof. However, in response to concerns from certain quarters, all Indian EVMs have an attached paper trail to satisfy voters’ concerns.
Q: When we look at last elections in the United States, there were reports of meddling by foreign powers to influence on voters’ choices. How India has insulated its systems from such foreign influences?
Bhattacharyya: Our democratic traditions are strong and independence of our institutions promotes faith in democracy. The Indian voter knows his mind and cannot be easily swayed from his convictions.
Q: Crime and money over the years is seen playing a part in Indian elections. Increasing number of candidates with criminal cases are contesting elections. What are steps to check such tendency?
Bhattacharyya: Both government and civil society have worked to minimize its effects through restrictive laws and regulations in the electoral process.
Q: In this election, we have seen certain candidates winning, who even targeted India’s freedom icon Mahatma Gandhi, whom people all over world revere for his non-violent philosophy. What does this indicate, the direction India may take?
Bhattacharyya: The status of Mahatma Gandhi as Father of the Nation and as a moral compass for generations of Indians remains undiminished.
Q: Voting percentage in Muslim majority Kashmir Valley of Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir has come down drastically from 31.05% in 2014 to 19.04% in 2019. Why there is an apathy towards democratic process and what are steps being taken to infuse confidence?
Bhattacharyya: The state of Jammu and Kashmir has been subjected to intense cross border terrorist attacks from Pakistan, which have caused great misery and hardship to the people. However, the people were determined to assert their constitutional rights and participate in the democratic process that the entire country enjoys. All mainstream political parties participated in the elections.
Q: It looks that India’s largest minority is not adequately represented in the Parliament. From the ruling alliance only one Muslim candidate has won elections. Many people say this trend is a reflection on India’s pluralistic credentials. Are there any steps to ensure proper representation of this large community of Muslims in the system?
Bhattacharyya: India is a secular country and elections are not contested on communal lines. Separate representation for Hindus and Muslims was followed in colonial times. All Indian citizens enjoy equal opportunity under the Constitution in Independent India.
Q: Contesting election is becoming a costly affair in India. We see political parties increasingly relying on wealthy candidates, who can foot their bills. What are steps taken to set up a level playing field, to ensure genuine political workers represent people in law making bodies?
Bhattacharyya: A number of laws and regulations are in place providing limits on election expenditure by candidates. More reform measures are under discussion to improve the situation further.
Q: Now the elections in India are over, what would be priorities of new government—during the second tenure of Prime Minister Modi?
Bhattacharyya: PM Modi has been voted into power with an overwhelming mandate by the people because of the successes in governance, development and security. These will continue to be the priorities of the new government.
Q: Do you see any change in terms of new government’s vision vis-a-vis its priorities on diplomatic front?
Bhattacharyya: India’s diplomatic agenda will continue to focus on advancing strategic autonomy. This will be achieved by focus on economic growth on one hand and enhancing our diplomatic engagement in a globalized world on the other. We see a shift towards multi-polarity and a need for more democracy, development focus, transparency and rules based system in a reformed global order.
Q: What are issues of immediate concern for the new government on security and diplomatic front?
Bhattacharyya: Cross border terrorism from Pakistan affects the security environment not only in India but also other countries in the region. We look forward to working with the global community in taking measures to address this menace and protecting the civilized world.
Q: As India’s envoy in Ankara, how do you see bilateral relations between India and Turkey during the second term of Prime Minister Narendra Modi government?
Bhattacharyya: We have seen strong momentum and concrete measures to deepen cooperation in India-Turkey bilateral relations in recent years. PM Modi and President Erdogan have very good understanding. They will continue their high level exchanges in the second term. In the past, they met often (Modi visit in 2015 to Antalya and Erdogan visit in 2017 to New Delhi and also during G20 in Hangzhou and BRICS in Johannesburg) and had numerous telephonic conversations. They gave direction and added content to our bilateral relations with positive steps in political-security, economic and cultural fields. Both leaders have returned to power with strong mandate. I am confident our bilateral relations will continue to deepen and expand to new horizons. Our growing relationship will make us natural partners in 21st century and major players in regional and global issues.
Q: What are the convergences between the two countries that we need to be build up to strengthen relations? Also what are challenges that need to be sorted out?
Bhattacharyya: India and Turkey have development and demographic dividend in their favor. As members of G20 and rapidly growing economies, we have the potential to step up economic engagement, both bilaterally and in third countries, for mutual benefit. We are also working for closer coordination on political and security issues and playing a more enabled role in regional and global issues. India and Turkey face similar challenges in cross border terrorism and have a shared responsibility to deal with this menace and strike at the roots of sponsors of terrorism. Similarly, we can jointly address the challenges of climate change, multilateral approach to trade and development and other global issues. I see tremendous prospect for enhanced cooperation and engagement in these vital areas and stepping up of bilateral engagement in all sectors.