Conning the voter

Conning the voter

This can’t go on forever

According to a research report based on affidavits filed by the winning candidates with the Election Commission, among the 543 members of parliament (MPs) in the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-2014), there were 158 (29%) with criminal charges and 77 (14%) with serious criminal charges. In the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-2019), there were 186 MPs (34%) with criminal charges and 112 (21%) with serious criminal charges. The serious criminal charges include murder, attempt to murder, spreading communal disharmony, robbery, dacoity, kidnapping and crimes against women. Another report pointed out that 31% of cabinet ministers in the Narendra Modi cabinet had criminal charges against them. Should we as a country pride ourselves on these numbers? Should we stop this shame now or shall we wait till Parliament is brimming with people facing criminal charges? 

Paradoxically, it is us, the voters, who have shown increasing faith in the capabilities of these men over successive elections, as though we are best governed by such a lot. After electing them, we watch their conduct inside and outside Parliament with bemusement. We witness their personal wealth grow at exponential rates. The wealth of re-elected MPs in 2004-2009 grew at about 60% annually. This doesn’t, of course, include the undeclared wealth they amass. Between two elections, we watch, wail, crib, and cry as though we were wronged. And then, on polling day, we vote again for the same lot, as though suddenly we are in a trance.  

Can it be really true that we willingly and wholeheartedly choose this lot? Or could it be that we are blindly led to elect them. If we analyse the vitriolic political content on social media, which is such a huge influence these days, it becomes clear that the meaningless clutter tries desperately to sell the party symbol or its leader to the gullible and the pliable. When the party workers canvass door-to-door or with a loudspeaker, they do the same. The advertisements and the whole propaganda machinery reinforce the message. All parties have perfected this art of setting up the voter to choose the symbol or the leader, but not the candidate to whom they vote. The merits and demerits of the candidate are pushed to the background deliberately so that even the inefficient and unworthy can sneak into Parliament in the name of the party or its leader, to make up the numbers.

The tragedy is that we, the voters, are falling for this without realizing that we are sending the crooks and the cunning to Parliament. The lifeless symbol that is chosen is neither going to sit in Parliament nor visit the constituency to hear the people. Yet, the voter presses the button hooked on to the symbol, forgetting that it is the candidate who is going to represent him and his aspirations in Parliament. The diversion of his attention from reality to unreality becomes complete. The con job gets done.

Isn’t it time to call this bluff?

Political parties adopt the yardstick of winnability, based on superficial charisma, money and muscle power, to select its candidate at the cost of national interest. Grabbing power at any cost is the goal. What can the parachuted pretty faces, money bags, family scions contribute to policy-making with neither the domain knowledge required nor the pulse of the people? The propaganda apparatus tactfully exhorts you to overlook the candidate and to vote for the “strong leader”, as if one man is sufficient to run the country. The leader is only as good as his team. The appeal is to vote for one party for a stable government. A stable, one-party government is of no consequence when the crooks and the cunning sneak in, swindle the exchequer and corrode Parliament inside-out. We, the voters, are being made clowns in this circus. It is time to arrest this trend of mediocrity by choosing good candidates. It will be a matter of one or two elections before every party is forced to field good candidates.

Thus, the subject boils down to good candidates. This subjective term needs to be objectively pinned down to practical variables. While parties deliberately maintain secrecy of information from people, a few organizations produce report cards on our MPs based on parameters like attendance during sessions, number of questions asked, MPLAD funds spent, etc. But this information, which is very useful, hardly gets dispersed at the constituency level.

Beyond these statistics, we also need to look at qualitative aspects of our MPs. An MP may have 100% attendance but could show up for 10 minutes each day to produce this number; he may have asked 100 questions, but could have dumped the answers in his waste bin without using it for any purpose; he may have spent 100% of his MPLAD funds but could have neglected the guidelines to favour a few of his own.

There is a need to develop robust criteria to evaluate a candidate both quantitatively and qualitatively and to share it extensively. Voter awareness campaigns should go beyond urging people to vote, to put up all the declared information of candidates well in advance for the voter to make an informed choice. The media and civil society needs to facilitate informed public debates with candidates at constituency levels. Let the candidates earn their stripes in the public domain. The cultivated habit of non-accountability and non-transparency – despite the Rs 2.7 lakh per month remuneration of an MP -- should be broken.

Swami Vivekananda wished for men who combined in them the mind of Shankara and the heart of Buddha. Even if we get candidates with mere traces of these qualities, we can bring the glory back to our Parliament. If there aren’t any in our constituency, we should consider exercising NOTA, the legitimate option to drive home the message to political parties that the voter won’t accept any candidate put up before him.

If there isn’t any good candidate in our constituency, we should consider exercising NOTA (none of the above) option. Currently, it is the only legitimate means available to a voter to drive home the message to political parties that he won’t accept the useless, the rabble-rouser and the criminal under the guise of voting for a party or a strong leader. When enough of us vote NOTA, parties will be forced to field better candidates, sooner or later. Swami Vivekananda wished for men who combined in them the mind of Adi Shankara and the heart of Gautama Buddha. Even if we get candidates with mere traces of their qualities, we can bring the old glory back to Parliament.