An Indian election, possibly to the dismay of those journalists transfixed by hype, is not a contest between Lord Rama and Bhagwan Krishna. In the real world, it is mostly between General Hocus and Admiral Pocus. The voter does not choose between two paragons of virtue. He takes a punt on what is available, warts and all.
Does this leave the electorate in serious depression? No. The Indian voter, having abandoned illusion in the mid-1960s, is now beyond disillusion: feet on the ground, eyes open and ears tuned to that fine pitch that distinguishes fact from bombast, he scans politics with a reality-check laser beam. The next general election will not be decided by the froth of school-playground taunt and retort that dampens television screens every evening. It will hinge on a challenge to democracy posed some 2500 years ago.
Socrates asked a simple question: who prevails in a trial between a doctor and a pastry chef before a jury of children? For the Greek philosopher, who placed the virtue of logic far above the merits of popular will, the answer was a no-brainer: a landslide for cooks. But if Socrates had been born in 1947 and observed Indian elections with his rigorous intellectual diligence for over six decades, he would surely have seen the flaw in his thesis. Politicians may still offer either prescription or pastry, or indeed cake and more cake, but the jury has grown up. The voter understands the difference between a sweetmeat today and bread tomorrow. Every election after 1952 has been about delivery, not promise.
Jawaharlal Nehru did not win in 1957 by distributing free soft cheese. He was rewarded for hard decisions. No economic reform has been as important, or as dramatic, as land reform, the basis of food security. Independence is a bitter joke if a nation has to beg for food to prevent starvation. The Nehru model extended to reorganization of states to empower people, industrial cities that absorbed an emerging working and middle class, emotional and economic succour to refugees devastated by partition, and a foreign policy that minimised threats to a nation that had suffered colonized.
By the 1960s, things began to fall apart on every aspect of the Nehru thrust - China, states, famine. In the case of China and Pakistan, friendship failed. The bigger mistake was fundamental. Congress forgot that every set of ideas demands the next set of ideas.
In 1971 Mrs Indira Gandhi offered a placebo. The balm had very temporary effect. The following three decades of despair exacted an extremely heavy price. Economic stagnation bred myriad forms of violence, from Maoist insurrection to communal and caste explosions. A stable government is possible only in a stable environment: every Union government between 1977 and 2004 was defeated. Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee might have survived, for they offered economic promise, but they were consumed by violence of the 1990s. A fire takes longer to extinguish than to start.
Corruption leapt up from margins to central dominance. There were many reasons, but among them was the gradual realisation by politicians that job security was over. They made as much hay as possible during the brief sunshine in their careers.
The government of Dr Manmohan Singh, Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi won in 2009 because enough voters were convinced that it would, given another five years, win India a place at the high table of the world's economy by raising growth and ensuring that its benefits seeped down to the impoverished base. Hope is the most dangerous thing you can betray. Growth in welfare was substituted by a cancerous spread in corruption. Nor could blame be transferred to subsidiary players. Among the accused was Robert Vadra, which took the story into the home of the most powerful family in government.
People expected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to be a tough doctor in the Socratic mould. Instead, in his second term, he turned out to be another pastry cook.
The Indian voter could be forgiven for turning cynical. He has, fortunately, only abandoned emotion - not fully, of course, but in sufficient numbers to create a different pattern. The voter has become an accountant. Minor exceptions apart, every election now delivers a clear mandate. Opinion polls manage to indicate a trend, but are far less successful in estimating the extent of victory, as even a casual look at Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Bihar, Goa, Punjab, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal or Karnataka proves. The message is obvious. No government can take recourse to an alibi for non-performance. Victors swirl in silk at the time of coronation but are left with a thong when accountability kicks in. The Indian voter has become cool, which is the perfect temperature for democracy.
There is no reason yet visible why this pattern should not hold in either the state polls this year or the general election next year.