India and the United States are proud of being the world's largest democracies. But over the last few weeks, neither has been a good advertisement for that form of government. Democracy is about putting power in the hands of the people.
The United States presidential election campaign and the India's assembly election campaigns have been about battles for personal power. In the United States, the verbal punch-up between Democratic challenger Joe Biden and President Donald Trump descended to the level of a TV bar brawl. It is also now clear that many more voters than expected bought into Trump's rather ugly narrative of what the United States would be like under Biden.
In Bihar, chief minister Nitish Kumar has battled for his personal political survival. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)'s Tejashwi Yadav is fighting to save the Lalu Prasad dynasty. In the Madhya Pradesh (MP) by-elections, almost all the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidates originally fought and won on the Congress ticket. Once they realised that the path to greater power may lie in switching ranks, they shifted to the BJP.
The late Rajiv Gandhi had hoped that by passing the anti-defection Act, he could end the "aya ram gaya ram" culture which made such a mockery of elections and the party system. But voters willing to tolerate turncoats have undermined the Act. In Bihar, Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) won the last election in alliance with the RJD. Now, they are rivals and Kumar is fighting in alliance with his former foe, the BJP.
In both India and the US, the election system throws up results which do not reflect the votes cast. In the last United States election, Hillary Clinton won more votes than Trump, but lost the election. There are different rules in different states for voting and counting. Well before counting, Trump said he would use every legal uncertainty these differences created if he did not win outright.
In India, the equation between seats and votes leads to absolute majorities being won without a majority of votes. In last year's general election, the BJP won an absolute majority of 303 seats with just 37.56 percent of the votes. Voting is spread over an inordinately long time so the political climate might change when votes have been cast in some parts of the country and are still to be cast in others. The Election Commission, once an institution feared by politicians, has become a paper tiger.
Elections in both countries have become focused on personalities, not policies or parties. Watching this Bihar campaign on television, I noticed that when voters were asked who they would vote for, they responded by saying Nitish Kumar or Tejashwi Yadav or even Narendra Modi although he is not in the fray. Very few named a party. In the United States, the whole election coverage revolves around a Trump versus Biden fight.
This strengthens the influence of personality cults and populism at the expense of policies and achievements. Personalisation leads to the unhealthy concentration of power in one person's hands. So, it must be hoped that Indian and American voters will eventually realise they are being taken for a ride and demand electoral reforms which lead to fair democratic elections and a healthy democracy.
Mark Tully is a former journalist.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Hindustan Times, and is published by special syndication arrangement.