The inky pinky
In the high decibel lecturing during electioneering in India, to citizens to come out and vote, somebody forgot to ask a few questions.
If there was one thing that continued to resound all through the election season, apart from the noisy campaigning, it had to be the sanctimonious lecturing that we all received from everyone and his aunt, on the beneficial side effects of voting.
Now, who wants to take on the might of the media, which is more frequently confusing reporting for promoting, and the political establishment in whose advantage it is if you trudge to the booth nevertheless, and the Election Commission, which in fact is Aunt incarnate, or more like Taunt incarnate who ridicules you and calls you names – Pappu – if you don’t go out to vote. But seriously, somebody has to ask: what is the matter with them!
You couldn’t miss the maniacal chanting by TV channels, newspapers who decided they will alter the democratic landscape of India, student groups, RWAs, NGOs, activists, film stars – it didn’t end there – eunuchs and TV actors started haranguing us – c’mon, even Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar jumped on the bandwagon. It was of course funny to see Mumbai’s Bollywood stars showing us the finger after polling, leaving it your imagination as to what the target of the insult was – Pakistan and Kasab or the Politicians of India. That indelicacy also inspired the title of this blog – since we could use the middle finger, why not the little pinky which also has important meaning attached to it.
But seriously, anyway you look at it, it amazes that an entire nation’s elite could be conned into such a spurious understanding of the electoral process or the democracy they so lovingly uphold. What is it about India and Indians that a 55% polling makes us feel suicidal. Hell, the Americans are 400 years ahead of us in democracy, and they don’t do better than 50% on average – and they’re all educated better than us, have a social security system in place and in general are better off than us on almost every index.
While this messianic zeal was at its peak, I was asked by one well meaning publicity hankerer to join a prospective meeting of citizens to understand why Delhi and Mumbai did not vote in the numbers they were expected to. I had to rather plainly put forth the theory I have mentioned above, with the caveat that not voting is in itself the biggest opinion one could hold about the elections and the representatives that are thrown at us. Did you think about that? He never called back.
So here’s the thing. The ones who constantly remind us to vote are being plainly juvenile because they want a different output from the electoral exercise without making a single modification in the input. The more discerning a person becomes, the less probable his chances of indulging in illogical behaviour: and if, as we all know and ADR, [the advocacy group working assiduously on tabulating criminal records and assets of contesting candidates] has been killing itself demonstration before every elections] that a number of those who we have to elect are corrupt or criminal, why would a sane man vote for them, and if both the choices were relatively similar, why would he come out to vote.
But more than that, my sense is that the middle class person is today more removed from the effects of politics than ever before due to the insurance of prosperity – I mean his relationship with politics no longer determines his immediate quality of life, because he can buy it for himself. What the poor man in a village needs from his local administration and through subservience to a local politician, a person in urban India just pays for and gets without obligation. School admissions or water, electricity or transport, bureaucratic red tape or security, he is able to circumvent each hurdle with the instrument of cash, or influence derived from availability of money. Ditto for the youth, who have neither the interest, not the understanding of how politics impacts their lives. Which leaves only the question of policy out – what if a government policy hurts them? That works, and so whenever we see greater involvement of people in elections – like in Punjab, where we had a 65% turnout, you can be sure that the people have an issue or a score to settle. Like in Delhi, when the Congress got booted out of the Corporation elections in the wake of the sealings and demolition mess. Otherwise, elections are passé for most of the elite. Don’t look at me – look at your well off neighbour, and if you want more evidence, look at America.
We did an experiment in Gurgaon in 2005 which reveals exactly how we can change the percentile of voting – but it also proves that if residents do not have a stake in the outcome of the election, they just stay away. When we discovered that most new Gurgaon residents did not have voter ID cards, or that they were not registered as voters, we ran a year-long campaign to enlist new voters ending with over 1 lakh new voter registrations [You can read more on this on http://www.peoplesaction.net]. Once we had those numbers, we asked residents what they intended to do with their vote, knowing full well that most residents were actually only interested in the ID card for its identity value. Anyway, we cajoled them into not wasting their vote and collectively agreeing to put up a candidate of their own choice through a novel ‘primary’ elections process – electing one of three contenders as the official candidate under the banner of the Gurgaon Residents Party [ GRP is now a registered party] and had him fight the Assembly polls of 2005 from Gurgaon. The results were expected – in that he lost – but surprising in the support he derived from their core areas of influence at that time – mostly new Gurgaon where he beat the Congress and BJP in eighteen booths and came second on twelve booths. Not bad for a one week old party and candidate.
The sum total was that people’s participation from the new Gurgaon areas reached historical highs – with areas notching up 40-50% polling whereas it used to totter in the range of 5-10% earlier. That changed things, and it’s not a permanent solution – they will have to continuously engage with the electorate if they want to draw them out the next time around. And that’s how it goes. If people find the stakes are high and they find credible candidates to vote for, they do. Not unless.
There is another reason for low voting which goes against the grain of logic, so to say, but trumps in behavioral science – and so it is that when people are mostly happy with a regime, voting is usually low, and when unhappy, voting is high. That is want explains the relationship between an anti-incumbency vote being normally high. This is also representative of human nature – anger and revenge are a bigger driver for voting, than the inertia of relative contentment, in the comforting arms of a status quo.