Vote as citizens, not partisans

Vote as citizens, not partisans

We have been told often enough that exercising our franchise is a core democratic duty. But we have rarely been told that voting is nothing if we don't vote freely and fairly. It is a serious sign of the illness of a democracy that the gulf widens between casting votes and making informed, responsible choices. Merely entering polling booths like brainwashed zombies, pressing buttons on EVMs and returning with indelible ink marks on index fingers doesn't add up to democracy. At best, it is a five-yearly electoral ritual. If we are to preserve and exercise our right to vote as a democratic privilege, we need to mind the following.

It helps to begin with a concrete instance. Suppose you voted, as I did, in the 2014 general elections, carried away by the anti-2G blitzkrieg against a certain party, and you knew nothing either about the truth of the matter or the intention of the morality breast-beaters in the electoral arena, how can you and I claim that we exercised "our" franchise? We merely exercised a prejudice. But that makes a mockery of the right to vote. It amounts, in effect, only to misusing our vote. The dominance of partisan and persistent propaganda, the volume of which continues to increase, is a serious issue in democracy.

Members of the Fourth Estate, historically the guardian of democracy, thus come to serve, barring exceptions, as saboteurs of democracy. While we cannot help the Fourth Estate behaving according to their perceived best interests, we can surely refuse to be led by the nose by mercenary collaborators and refuse to be dulled by their opium of misinformation. Surely, this is a basic democratic responsibility without which casting votes ceases to have any democratic significance.

The second duty that voters have in a democracy is to exercise their franchise as citizens, not as blind followers of this camp or that. This calls for civic maturity, given that human nature is riddled with an inclination to be partisan. Even in a football match, say, between Germany and Brazil, we watch only as partisan spectators, even though the victory of one and the defeat of the other are immaterial to us. Understandably, political parties and demagogues are keen to capitalise on this weakness.

On our part, though, we as citizens need to realise that by being partisan in exercising our right to choose, we hurt our interests. We are choosing lawmakers and rulers. And if we don't choose the very best and reject criminal and corrupt elements, irrespective of the labels they flaunt, we prove ourselves undeserving of good governance. Those who belittle their freedom to choose and entrust their welfare to agents of communalism and corruption vote, in effect, against good governance.

We need to be democrats at heart to be able to vote responsibly! Democracy comprises citizens, not blind denizens of communal ghettos or delirious devotees of demagogues. A citizen is one for whom the country comes first. A citizen is distinguished not only by immense privileges but also awesome responsibilities. It was for this reason that the ancient Greeks believed that not everyone within a country should be citizens.

While the exclusion of anyone from citizenship is anathema to us, and rightly too, we need to heed the Greek insight that the maturity to think objectively for the shared life of a country should take precedence over all competing loyalties and considerations. It is because we have failed in this respect that the health of Indian democracy has today become a matter of
concern.

Even the most rudimentary notion that a government, democratically constituted, belongs to all in the country, and not to any particular group, now seems nearly far fetched. The ministers of a democratic government are custodians of the welfare of the people as a whole. This core propriety is embedded in the pledges that ministers take mandatorily at their swearing-in. But it takes true democrats to stay faithful to the oath thus taken. How can we expect our elected representatives to be non-partisan when we ourselves are not?

Finally, citizens' duties toward the State should not end with voting. Continual vigilance is the price that we have to pay, irrespective of which party rules us, for good governance. To be vigilant is to be truthful! If we only parrot the propagandist falsehoods dished out to us by those who think we are too stupid to see through their subterfuges, we fail to be vigilant.

In fact, indifference to truth is the main reason why our vigilance in respect of quality of governance has declined. To abdicate our duty to be vigilant is to become slavish camp-followers and senseless victims of routine gimmicks and subterfuges. The wheeler-dealers of political power know, even if we don't, that promise of development and good governance can be used repeatedly as baits, so long as citizens allow themselves to be led by the nose by purveyors of deceptions and illusions.

Good governance then becomes no more than an illusion manufactured by the State in connivance with those media houses that are, in the words of TS Eliot, "deferential, glad to be of use" to political establishments. For good governance to be a reality, it's imperative that citizens open their eyes to lived realities and denounce the gulf between promise and performance in the track-records of governments.

We need to reject the myth that good governance is the charity of certain demagogues and parties towards citizens. Good governance, in a democracy, is what a people give to themselves via franchise. Political parties, infected with a cynical and contemptuous view of the gullibility of voters, have little intrinsic interest in providing it.

Good governance is to rulers what bridles are to horses. It is in the interests of the rider, not the horse, to have the bridle in place. Elections are the time to remind horses that there are bridles, and that bridles are not fiddles.

(The writer is former principal, St Stephen's College, Delhi)

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