Thursday, November 6

Reflecting on elections

Ashutosh’s experience with volunteering for Obama made me think again of what this campaign said to me - the conspicuous absence of middle class and student participation in elections in India. I don't remember any of my peers or colleagues that I genuinely respected campaigning for any party or candidate. I always carried an image of the mawali kinds campaigning in jeeps and motorbikes, and an important reason why I never thought about participating actively. It is a stereotype and not a completely honest representation, but that is the image I still carry when I think of Indian elections.

Because I was always interested in politics and elections excited me, I could have been easily recruited into campaigning for someone. But no one appealed to my rationality as a voter. No one every tried to convince me of their worth such that I could then plausibly pass it on to others. There was no way I could rationalize and argue for any one candidate with sincerity and conviction. I never felt that any one candidate deserved so much of my time and energy. Every candidate and party had in fact insulted my intelligence.

As against that, watching the campaign here I knew I could have gone out and volunteered for Obama. When the thought first struck me, I was ashamed and guilty. I thought maybe the guilt was because my thoughts were a betrayal of my country. But it was more than that. The guilt was because I had not participated enough in the democratic process in my own country. I had, like millions others merely voted. I had not demanded answers to real questions. I had laughed and brushed away the political rhetoric, and voted on lines my family had for a long time. As a student of politics and democracy, I had not thought long enough about why I was voting for whoever it was. As a journalist I had merely been a passive observer.

While nothing can replace my love and respect for my country, being here and witnessing this election has made me respect the US as a nation. Maybe it is because it’s the election season or maybe because I am in DC, but the respect accorded to rationality and voter intelligence has left me stunned. I have said earlier that the campaigns were not perfect and had their share of mud-slinging and irrationality. I am critical of the US’ foreign policy and attitude. They carry a lot of blame for the kind of world we live in today, from the threats of nuclear war to the economic crisis. But the world wouldn’t have been what it is today without the US, for the better or worse.

Talking to some friends I have heard an argument that the parliamentary form of democracy with hundreds of parties makes it difficult to have a campaign like in the US. My problem with this argument is that I am not merely asking for formal debates. I am asking for a rational discussion and argument from candidates and parties about why I should vote for them. It has nothing to do with the structure of how these policies and rationales are conveyed. It has to do with explaining them in the first place. The party manifestos are meant to describe how a party will govern the country. But I have never known people to actually have access to and read election manifestos to make a decision. But they do turn up at rallies, which is where the policies of the candidate and parties could be discussed. There are interviews and press conferences. There are the 24 hour news channels hungry for news and information. I see no reason why they would not lap up candidates’ policy explanations if they are offered to them.

How and why a person ultimately votes is his personal choice. The people we trust our lives with could at least make an effort to ensure that the reason is rational.


Ashutosh said...

I completely agree with you and emphasize. I also did feel ashamed that I was not half as interested in volunteering or for that matter doing anything related to politics in India. However, my perception of political campaigning closely mirrored myself. I thought that young political campaigners were almost all of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena" type, goons on motorbikes. Observations on the sordid character of even the local Fergusson student council cemented my desire to stay away. But I should have taken a closer look at the campaigners and would have found at least a few just like me. Most importantly, how could we ever bring about change if we always refer to them as "them" and to us as "us" and therefore want nothing to do with "them"?

However, having said that, on a personal basis I think it is probably wise that I did not get involved in actual political campaigning in college (although I still should have been involved in other ways). My first love is and always will be science, those were formative years for forging my scientific temper, and I wouldn't have wanted to get distracted from this process.

Ashutosh said...

that should be "mirrored your own"

Manasi said...

Ashutosh: I agree that change cannot be had with a 'us' and 'them' theme. And that there would have been some like you, and like me too. But the general impression of participants was discouraging to say the least.

I think there is a lack of a good incentive structure for participation in our electoral process. We have an incentive to vote, but even there I am skeptical of exactly what it is. Any other form of participation would need a good enough incentive for people to give up their time. The general mood that I have observed among many who vote is that of "things aren't going to change anyway". And it is not just cynicism, but I suspect a lot more distrust and disillusionment.

Because every criticism of the government or our democratic process carries an implicit counter-criticism about it being easier to blame and criticize standing outside, I try to go on to the other side as much as possible. And every time it seems that it should not be that difficult either; especially because by taking up that job you are implying that you think it can be done. As much as I empathize with what elected and appointed officials have to endure before achieving any results, it does not mean that they should be let off easily. It is their job to do it. And it is our job to fire them if they can't.

A question that comes to mind is that if we as employers of these "public servants" cannot do our job and make them fall in line tot he detriment of the society, do we deserve to retain our job?

I understand that the question could be interpreted to mean that I am advocating stripping our electorate of voting rights. And for the record I am not. I am only questioning if we are doing our duties before we reprimand the others for not doing theirs.

Ashwin said...

The problem we have in india is the same problem that exists in oil rich arab states; the educated and more affluent people dont want to disturb their otherwise comfortable life by getting involved in politics. Its much easier to just pay a bribe when a bribe will solve the problems created by bad governance. The bright people dont get involved and hence the process is dominated by the thugs and lunatics.