The voters' googly

The voters' googly

Election Myths

The voters' googly

Packing a punch:  In the end, the voter is the winner.
The results of the 2009 elections have surprised us, yet again. And the surprises have been across the board, whether it is in voter turnout, margin of victory, successful issues, caste politics and national identity. The fact that we are surprised should make us question the assumptions that we held before this elections, the myths around which we base our understanding on what elections in India actually mean.

At the local multiplex Neha Dhupia poses with a pistol; her blouse is cut low and her lips are set in a pout. The tagline under the photograph reads, “Get in the thick of the action. Vote now.” The picture is pretty, so maybe that is why it is still up, long after the message has become outdated. In no other election has there been such a rush of celebrities asking us to vote, to not be a ‘Pappu’. The radio came alive with the voice of serious sounding film actors who spend their on-screen lives running around trees, or brutally butchering bad guys, telling us to vote. The TV sparkled with celebrities like

Imran Khan and John Abraham trying to look both pretty and pretty serious.
But in the end what effect did it all have? Mumbai, the city of cine-dreams, and also, horrifically, of the recent attacks in November, reported a turnout of just over 40 percent. New Delhi, the seat of power, and not inconsequently, the place where the main English TV channels have their offices, recorded a turnout of just over 50 percent. It is in the poor, rural areas where the turnout exceeded 60 percent; and this is the vote that everybody misread, and which has taken India into a present reality where the stock market is shooting through the roof, with the world tuning into India saying, “How wonderful it must be to be an Indian at this time!”

Isn’t it about time that we, in the centres of power, admit that we know next to nothing about the country at large? The recent election campaigns, as well as the projections of who would win, were based on the urban, English-literate areas. But democracy includes everybody, and most of the Indian voters are people we never talk to, instead we are happily content to base our ideas of how they will vote on assumptions and prejudices that we never question.

One of my cousins left his high-earning IT sector job to work in the social sector, and was part of the Tata Tea Jaago Re campaign. “It isn’t apathy,” he told me. “That’s just a convenient excuse. The process is the problem. Registration is cumbersome and paper-based, and there is no way to follow up your application like how you would with a PAN number. Getting things corrected is next to impossible. One of our volunteers had to stand for eight hours to get the mistakes dealt with and vote. No average person will do that.” And of course average people in Mumbai didn’t have the time. A friend remarked with a smile. “It’s the spirit of Mumbai; we work, we don’t have time to waste. If these terrorists couldn’t make us change, you think some celebrity campaign will?”

Stop, think, act

That is admirable in a way, but it isn’t as if the electoral rolls in the rural areas were trouble free. Shouldn’t we stop to ask why the average poor Indian farmer or agricultural labourer might wait for eight hours to vote when a city resident won’t? Three years ago I attended a meeting with one of India’s pre-eminent economists. This was in London so he felt free to express his mind. When I asked him about the state of the agriculture sector in India, something that is close to my concerns since my father has retired to become a farmer in eastern UP, the economist waved away my concerns. “It only affects 10 million households,” he said. “It will only affect our growth by a percentage point or so.”

I was appalled at the casual dismissal inherent in those words. If this is how we regard the agriculture sector in this country, which is far larger than 10 million households, then we are in a mess. A percentage point or two may mean nothing to an economist sitting in Delhi who can fly off to London or New York to wax eloquent about India’s reforms, but it might mean a question of life or death for poor farmers — a fact that thousands of starvation deaths should have brought to our attention. And while it may not come to a question of that degree for people like my father, their skills and experience as engineers and managers cannot be properly utilised in a sector that is wilfully neglected.
In much of post-election analysis the tens of thousands of crores spent on the farmers’ loan waiver scheme and the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme have been cited as among the top reasons for the popularity of the Manmohan Singh government.

They could be more effective, and even the proponents of the schemes say there could be improvements. But no scheme is ever perfect, what is important is that a large section of India, that is often ignored, had some of its concerns addressed, even if imperfectly.

Another myth that was bandied about was that caste and creed mattered over everything. Although it is always dangerous to quote somebody as foolish as the last American president, there is one line that George W Bush said that is very relevant in this context. He talked about the “soft bigotry of low expectations”, meaning that people in privileged centres of power expect the less privileged to act less intelligently. Maybe nothing so demonstrates this than the fear of Mayawati. The hype surrounding her bid to be PM was premised on the belief that no matter what the lady did, or did not do, she would always grow in popularity among her Dalit base.

Last year I went to Lucknow to research a story on Mayawati’s politics of building monument after monument to herself. In villages surrounding the city, Dalits assured me that she had brought pride to them. But they would also add, “But she promised us water.” Or, “The roads are still narrow and dangerous.” Most significantly Dalit activists, and BSP party workers on the ground, said, “The administration doesn’t seem to be paying attention to us.” And yet commentator after learned commentator in national newspapers, or on TV, spoke in awe, and fear, about Mayawati’s unbreakable hold over the Dalits.

Are we to assume that Dalits, unlike other Indians, unlike all other voters in the world, don’t care about how they are governed? Isn’t this bigoted in the extreme? Have we forgotten that the instrument of our governance, the Constitution of India, was largely shaped by a Dalit, Dr BR Ambedkar? It isn’t homage to his statues alone that will strengthen the lady in Lucknow but homage to his work. If the Congress can deliver better on that, on governance, why shouldn’t it win as well as it has in UP?

In the calculations of caste and creed we were told that the idea of a national party no longer mattered, and any principles would be compromised. Naghma, who was part of NDTV’s innovative Election Bus campaign, said, “When I asked the Bheel tribals in Rajasthan who they would vote for they would reply, ‘The hand (Congress), of course, who else is there?’ That is who they have known for most of their lives.” The Congress, as a political party, has a long and deep history in the country (although it must be noted that the Congress has changed symbols from the charkha to the cow and calf to the hand). When Rahul Gandhi helped push through the decision to contest as a national party, putting aside alliances, this is the bedrock on which he built. If the BJP hopes to be a national party it must also try and do the same. Whether it can do so though, is deeply linked to the second issue, of principles.

Principles matter

One of the most repugnant things associated with the Congress was its participation, or at least its acceptance of, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. It is said that Rajiv Gandhi refused to act against people like Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler because they had spent three days in mourning next to his mother’s dead body. But India is far more than Indira could ever be, and its laws and principles are far more important.

Just before these elections the Congress received an opportunity to make amends, and took it, removing Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar from its list of candidates. It is very little, and very late, but at least it is an acknowledgement that principles matter.
The BJP had an opportunity as well when Varun Gandhi made his infamous speech ridiculing Sikhs and Muslims. The BJP largely did nothing, certainly nothing clearly. We still don’t know what its principles are. If it believes that Sikhs and Muslims are second class citizens and should be dealt with by violence, then it should say so openly. If it does not, then it should have the courage of its convictions and remove such candidates from its rolls. Instead it came across as a party that will accept viciousness at a local level, and try to fluff its way across at the national level, hardly courageous.

In the end it is always dangerous to draw too many conclusions on little data. After all the Congress owes the MNS, DMDK and Prajya Rajam Party for dividing the vote in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and Hindutva triumphed quite comprehensively in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka. But if there is one thing that we can say, it is this: In India the voter matters; and the voter is a real person, with real concerns. A pretty face on TV didn’t make people vote in the cities, and the ones who determined the fate of the country, who voted in the rural areas, have far more real concerns. We should thank them.

(The writer is a Delhi-based author and political analyst)See also our pre-poll cover dated April 12, 2009, at

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