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May 4, 2011

Making the vote count

Reconnecting the urban middle class with the state

Photo: BBC

The Anna Hazare-led movement against corruption has divided Indian society—at least the urban middle class and intelligentsia—right down the middle.

At one end of the spectrum stand the frustrated supporters of the activists. Their argument is simple. Fed up with the political class’ abuse of power, they see the movement and the proposed Jan Lok Pal bill as an opportunity to check the growing impudence of the ruling elite. On the other hand, the opponents of the bill have not only raised concerns about the method of protest but also condemned it, and the proposed bill, as an anathema to our electoral and constitutional structures.

Lost amidst the boisterous calls for a revolution, the media jamboree, condemnation of a lethargic electorate, accusations against ignorant voters and the tit-for-tat shrillness of the discourse, however, is the fundamental question that demands our immediate attention.

What is the relationship of the Indian people with their state and what sort of a relationship do we seek?

Those who argue that now is the time for action and not for a philosophical undertaking of this nature, perhaps need to take a breath and think again. Values are the key to responsible action, and never the other way round.

The first step in answering the question is an understanding of the nature of the Indian voter. What motivates us to vote? And what motivates us to abstain? With that aim I traveled across ten states over 45 days during the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha election.

On the ground, you do encounter the ugly realities of our electoral process in the form of cynicism, booze, money, muscle and dynasty. Yet suggesting that these are our primary motivations is rather simplistic and offensive. They reduce the entire process of manufacturing apathy to merely the end product.

For the poorest and the most disempowered sections of Indian society, there is often little choice. I can’t recollect encountering a single farm worker or urban labourer who beamed at the thought of being part of the largest democracy in the world. For them, the basics—clean water, a decent income, housing and education—still remained the unmet priorities. The struggle for survival is what consumed them. In such a scenario, however much they might want to, it is difficult for them to appreciate the true value of their vote in building long-term state institutions.

Their vote is thus treated as a bargaining chip that is used for short-term gains. The genuinely ignorant use it to trade for escapism in the form of drunken cynicism. These deserve our scorn— it’s probably the best way to get them to rethink their choices.

Then there are those that prioritise parochialism and identity politics over republicanism as means for economic ends. It is often in such cases that feudal lords emerge and maintain their stranglehold. Such behaviour is also prevalent among the middle classes.

The others, and this is the largest grouping, often tend to fall prey to immediate circumstance. Cash and sops are fair game here then.

In contrast, urban middle-class voters tend to suffer from a different disease that yields the same terminal result—a wasted vote. For them, it is not about a lack of concern. It is not about the unrelenting sun, the unremittingly poor quality of candidate, the fragmented numeric fatalism of elections, or a fading belief in our ability to change things. These aren’t causes; these are effects.

The real cause for the lack of urban participation is that most city-dwellers just don’t relate to the state anymore. For nearly all our needs, we depend on the private sector. That in itself isn’t a bad thing. It would, in fact, be foolhardy to deny that economic freedom has bred prosperity and reduced corruption at the most lowest levels of state. The problem, however, is that privatisation has often been undertaken on account of survival instincts and vested interests, which has resulted in large-scale scams.

In the process of renegotiating the social contract, from becoming a provider of goods and services to being a facilitator and arbitrator, the state has ended up positioning itself as an unwelcome relative at best and a goon at worst. What it demands, we offer—as long as it keeps a safe distance from our daily lives. It’s an unholy alliance of convenience.

In essence, what we are left with are dangerous and amoral vacuums—a vacuum of leadership, a vacuum of credible institutions, a vacuum of public faith and most importantly a vacuum of participation.

It is here that civil society organisations, not just NGOs but also units like Resident Welfare Associations and community organisations, must play an active, constructive role. While we need greater economic freedom, electoral reforms and more inner-party democracy, what we also need is far more participation from citizens at local levels. That in itself can be a catalyst for the other, larger reforms mentioned above.

It is imperative for activists, ordinary people and state officials to rebuild institutions through public participation at the rural and urban grassroots. We need institutionalised consultations between local authorities and the people they serve. That is where accountability must begin. That is where we can begin setting a concrete agenda at the most local level, and increase public stake and ownership in the state. Disowning a ‘corrupt parliament’ or ‘corrupt legislature’ is no way forward.

It’s only then, that a vote will matter the way it should, the way it can.


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