Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Are the national elections bipolar?

Turn on any television channel and you will think that India is going through bipolar national elections. It is like a boxing match, being fought in proxy. In one corner is one man, Narendra Modi, ably represented by whoever his spokesperson is in the studio that evening. In the other corner is the Gandhi family, again represented by an articulate spokesperson.

Somewhere the richness and colour of the regional parties that became the integral part of Indian polity since 1996 seems to be missing in the predominant media representation of these elections. Conspicuous by their near-absence in the media coverage in this year’s elections are dramatis personae such as Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mayawati, Nitish Kumar, Navin Patnaik, M. Karunanidhi, etc. Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu and Omar Abdullah make occasional appearance.

Cut back to the period between 1995 and 1998, when the country was preparing for the 1996 general elections and also when the United Front Government faced many trust motions in Parliament. The television screens were full of leaders from regional political parties.
Plantations such as this cardamom estate in Idukki district have been
in the eye of a political storm in the recent months [Pic: Varun Warrier]

A trend towards bipolarity has its implications for environmental decisions in an ecosystem-diverse country like India. Take for instance the case of the mid-altitude plateaus of Kerala, represented by Idukki and Wayanad districts, which have been in the news during the run-up to these elections. At an average altitude between 800 and 1000 metres, these plateaus were malaria-prone regions. As with the Gudalur plateau in Tamil Nadu contiguous to Wayanad, these plateaus were only sparsely populated till the 1940s. The influx of settlers came when there was effective medical cure for malaria (1).

Those who initially went to settle in these plateaus were from communities that were landless and had the daring to go to dangerous terrains. While the landed gentry stayed back in the plains, and boasted about temple festivals and caparisoned elephants, the landless settlers braved the wild elephant herds and cultivated every inch of land they could lay their hands on. The women tended the farms, protected the children from wild animals while the men trekked for days to the nearest market town to sell what the family produced.

When this settler community gets slapped with orders emerging from the Kasturirangan Committee limiting their activities, it protests (2). While one can argue on the conservation versus livelihoods debate, the fact remains that if a representative has to take these issues effectively to the Parliament it has to be someone who is from the region and knows its history and ecology. He or she needs a political agenda that is tailor-made to represent the interests of the region, and not one that has been averaged out for the entire country. And this is where regional parties score over omnibus national parties.

The 1996 general elections and the years of the United Front Government was the period when regionalism and federalism bloomed in the country. By this time the results from two socio-economic processes initiated between 1989 and 1991 were maturing. As part of the economic liberalisation there was a focus on the middle class as a consumer base for the goods and services. This created a new kind of economic aspiration for a wider group of people. This bolstered the aspirations for development and growth from caste and region-based consolidations that were born after the implementation of the Mandal Committee report in 1989 (3).

Happening in parallel with this was a coming together of local environmental movements to demand greater accountability from the electoral candidates in select constituencies. A group of organisations, led by Narmada Bachao Andolan, established the National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM), with an aim of bringing people’s issues into the agenda of the 1996 elections (4). Similarly, another group of environmental organisations formed a network called the Jan Vikas Andolan to publicly question candidates on their environmental concerns (5).

However, it is not the case that regional parties are more environment friendly than the national ones. In fact, the trend in the mid 1990s was that each of the regional parties was pushing for development projects in their regions, oftentimes unmindful of incorporating environmental safeguards.

The difference is that the feedback loops between the people and the policymakers are shorter with regional parties. So when people ask for development or conservation that is location or ecosystem-specific they can communicate and get action for their needs quickly and effectively. The accountability for the policy maker becomes that much sharper. For instance, Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam party, who focussed on the urban areas at the cost of the larger rural population, has had to sit out for a decade.

At a local level, the perceived dichotomy between development and conservation also disappears. For the demarcation of the ecologically sensitive area (ESA) the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (Madhav Gadgil Committee) had recommended consultations through the local bodies under the Panchayats and Biodiversity Acts (6). The High Level Working Group on Western Ghats (Kasturirangan Committee), which was tasked to work out the modalities for implementing the earlier committee’s recommendations, overlooked this and went through marking the ESAs using satellite imagery (7). And this is causing the controversy in the hill districts.

So much so that the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had to make amendments to its 13 October 2013 notification, accepting the recommendations of the Kasturirangan Committee that declared 37% area of the Western Ghats as an ESA where development activities are restricted.

Through an office memorandum dated 20 December 2013, MoEF stated that the boundary of the ESA and the regulatory regime would be finalised after obtaining the views of the stakeholders and state governments. MoEF assured that the recommendations will not cause restrictions to any normal activities related to plantations and agriculture; and that the restrictions listed in the notification will apply only to new and expansion projects, and not to the existing ones.  

The Kasturirangan Committee reportedly used higher resolution satellite imagery than the Gadgil Committee while demarcating the ESA. However, technical minutiae cannot replace a broad-based democratic process that would have been more acceptable to the people on the ground.

So when the media represents these elections as bipolar, what is being lost is the space that accommodates the various nuances of development and environment discussions in the country.

It could be possible that the media is reading the situation wrong or over-presenting bipolarity. In the theatre of talk shows and televised shouting matches, bipolarity adds drama.

There is reality and there is the media’s perception of the reality. The country today has access only to the media’s perception of reality. Will the real picture be as bipolar as what is being made out will be clear on May 16.


1.            Adams T. Gudalur: A community at the crossroads. In: Hockings P, editor. Blue Mountains: The ethnography and biogeography of a South Indian region: Oxford University Press; 1989.
2.            Rajagopal K. Ghats row and its aftermath. The Hindu.  20 March 2014.
3.            Ramakrishnan V, Singh SR. Vital pieces of a jigsaw. Frontline.  16 April 2014.
4.            Warrier SG. The centre will hold. The Hindu Business Line.  26 February 1996.
5.            Warrier SG. Eco issues may feature in select LS campaigns. The Hindu Business Line.  27 March 1996.
6.            Report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel. Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India; 2011.
7.            Report of the High Level Working Group on Western Ghats. Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India; 2013.