Ballot: Ten Episodes That Have Shaped India’s Democracy Review

How the world’s largest democracy continues to attract, amaze, and inspire the masses since its establishment? What are the key incidents that have had a lasting impact on the Indian democracy? How election campaigns, personalities, religions, and castes have shaped Indian polity over the decades?

Ballot: Ten Episodes That Have Shaped India’s Democracy, by Rasheed Kidwai provides answers to all these questions, as he zeroed in on some of India’s highly influential elections swayed by ideologies, agendas, luminaries, parties, and factions competing within.

Kidwai gave his book an upbeat title, Ballot. “Ballot” is what helps people to exercise their right to vote. It determines the future of democracy. The book paints a wonderful picture of India’s democracy in a way never done before. It’s like a two-hour long crash course on India’s democracy- what, how and who all shaped it. Rasheed Kidwai needs no introduction. Rasheed wear multiple hats and the most distinguished one is of a writer and a political analyst. He has been a witness to the distinguished history of the Congress party from the most charismatic Indira Gandhi to the earthy Sitaram Kesari to the poised Sonia Gandhi and now the man on a mission on whom the grand old party of India has placed its best bet on, Rahul Gandhi.

Bursting with valuable details like the dates, seat tally, electoral wins and losses, this book vividly shows how the power to vote has resulted in several surprising turns of events in India’s political landscape.

Pointing how the evolution of India’s democratic process was not an easy task, Kidwai writes “since the first election, Indian democracy has seen more than its share of ups and downs”. He maintains that even though many challenges surface before political parties, one thing is certain that “no political party is above the people’s mandate”.

Just a few brief paragraphs of the first chapter “From Gungi Gudiya to Garibi Hatao” sketch several crucial events that have etched in Indian history: the issue of finding Jawaharlal Nehru’s successor, the rise of Indira Gandhi after initial dubiety within the Congress party, the country’s struggles with famine and drought in 1966, the ensuing food riots, the revolt of Mizo tribals, Punjab’s linguistic agitation, and the creation of Bangladesh. In the very beginning itself, the author gives the readers a window into the political history of the 1960s.

Structured in a gripping manner, the second chapter explains how the Congress ended up with 153 seats in the 1977 Indian General Election.

From the emergence of Jai Prakash Narayan to the rise of Sanjay Gandhi, from the Article 352 of the Indian Constitution and National Emergency to factional politics within the Congress party – all these incidents of the 1970s shaped not only the Congress’ future but the country’s too.

Congress’ first defeat in independent India, against the Janata Party who won 298 seats that year was not only humiliating but also an evidence of the rising influence of the Jan Sangh and the RSS – which continues to alter the country’s social and political fabric even today.

In quick, perspicuous passages of the third chapter, Kidwai describes the incidents leading to the Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the emergence of the power called Rajiv Gandhi in late 1984, and the decline of the Congress in 1989. While Rajiv couldn’t highlight the achievements he made in the fields of technology, education, infrastructure, and economy, by 1989, Kidwai explains, “the moral and administrative fabric of India had been corrupted to the core”; “respect for law, human dignity and the rights of an individual” were no longer of national importance.

Later the book covers how the vacuum that Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination brought in the nation wasn’t an easy one to fill. When the otherwise “low-key” P.V. Narasimha Rao took charge of the country as prime minister in 1991, he wasn’t a highly popular figure. His tenure brought a fair share of feats and fiascos for the Congress party as well as the country – no wonder why, the Congress was defeated in 1996 by the BJP. And with that emanated the willingness of Sonia Gandhi to join active politics.

Kidwai takes shorter views in the books and prefers facts over verbiage – that in 1999 Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the first non-Congress prime minister to complete a full term in office – is an interesting insight for the readers.

A compelling part of the book is the chapter that deals with the unexpected victory of the Congress party on 14 May 2004, under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi. Kidwai writes with delight rather than monotony. He describes Rahul Gandhi as “another power centre in the party”, emphasizing on his progress in the national political sphere.

Sonia Gandhi’s act of renunciation of the prime minister’s office, her choice of Dr. Manmohan Singh as the nation’s prime minister in 2004 and the teamwork and rapport that the two shared have been astutely appraised in the book.

It is interesting that the author gives a crisp yet substantial view of the two United Progressive Alliance governments that governed the nation from 2004-2014 and the tactics adopted by the Opposition to come to power.

“The building of ‘Brand Modi’”, as Kidwai puts it, “was not an organic event but a careful strategic operation”. He agrees that at present, Brand Modi has been losing ground – for reasons of rising unemployment, economic slowdown, the troubles associated with demonetization and GST, lack of good governance in several states, poor implementation of pet projects, etc.

Ballot also throws light on the significance of not just the national level polls, but also a series of state polls that still bear an impact on the nation.

As the book progresses, Kidwai pulls away from the national polity and gives us a look into regional politics, sharing meaningful insights into the striking progression of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in 1982-83 as a regional force in Andhra Pradesh which led to the decline of Congress in the region.

The chapter about Balasaheb Thackeray is a remarkable testament to an individual’s strength “without ever becoming an elected representative”. The formation of the BJP-Shiv Sena government in 1995 in Maharashtra, gave birth to a fiercer Hindu nationalist agenda which is rampant in the country today.

Kidwai also discussed the grit of two powerful women leaders – Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee. How Mayawati ascended to power in Uttar Pradesh through her untiring allegiance to the Dalit cause, and how Mamata Banerjee led her party All India Trinamool Congress to victory in the 2011 West Bengal Assembly election, talks a lot about the firebrand image that the two women politicians have successfully created in their respective states.

The last part of the book is devoted to the independent contestants in elections. The author beautifully explains the power that resides in a common man, thanks to the Constitution of India. As the author emphasizes, “experiments in the political playing field prove the vibrancy of democracy in India”.

The overall effect of Rasheed Kidwai’s Ballot is that it becomes a fascinating account of some of the extremely significant Indian political events and leaves a convincing impression about the strength of Indian democracy.

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