Just when you felt cynical about politics, a dancer and a banker have plunged themselves in the heat of the political process, destabilizing our notions. After years of activism in support of those the Narmada dam displaced and opposing the moral legitimacy of the Narendra Modi administration in Gujarat, dancer Mallika Sarabhai is standing against Lal Krishna Advani, who may become prime minister if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leads a coalition to power. From South Mumbai, international banker Meera Sanyal—incensed after the terror attacks in Mumbai last November—has entered the fray, taking on the influential Deora family machine. In addition, in Bangalore, the Sri Rama Sene’s attacks on women so appalled Capt. G.R. Gopinath, who founded a low-cost airline, that he decided to stand as an independent candidate.
A disclosure is in order: I like free-thinking independent candidates, and in particular, I want Sarabhai and Sanyal to succeed; I happen to know them personally. I have interviewed Sarabhai in the past, and admire her dance and politics. I went to college with Sanyal, and count her as a good friend.
Those objecting to independents do so for four reasons. One, that they can’t win. Two, that they take away votes from a more winnable, but not necessarily more competent candidate, even if the best way to describe such candidates is that they represent “the lesser evil”. Three, independent members of Parliament (MPs) cannot be effective without party machinery. Four, they would be hostage to their constituents’ agenda.
Independent candidates have won Lok Sabha elections. Many stalwarts entered Parliament unaffiliated to any party in India’s early years, including Minoo Masani, V.K. Krishna Menon, and J.B. Kripalani. Later, Purushottam Mavlankar was elected twice from Gujarat. Maneka Gandhi, too, has won as an independent.
The argument that they will take away votes that could go to a more winnable candidate may seem to have some merit, but only up to a point. Many blamed Ralph Nader for ensuring Al Gore’s defeat in the 2000 presidential election in the US. But Gore lost not because Nader took away his votes, but because Gore failed to win votes which were naturally his. The “lesser evil” argument is preposterous: As Sanyal said in We the People, a TV programme, on Sunday: Why choose between two evils when you have the greater good in front of you?
But can an independent candidate be effective? Surely, not all the 160-odd MPs of the Congress or the BJP are equally capable or effective. Many have poor attendance record in Parliament, and some rarely speak. The caricature of MPs thumping tables, shouting at their opponents, staging dharnas in the well, staging walkouts, and occasionally hurling objects at one another is hardly an edifying spectacle. Televising such antics hasn’t shamed them into behaving better.
Can the independent MPs move beyond a single issue? But then Sarabhai and Sanyal aren’t wedded to a single issue. Sarabhai wants justice for the riot victims in Gujarat, but she also wants to rebuild the foundations of a secular India. Sanyal is not only concerned about public transport and security in Mumbai; she wants to see Mumbai as a world-class financial centre, whose benefits will reverberate throughout India.
Could these candidates not be more effective doing what they are—Sarabhai as an activist, Sanyal as a banker? Shouldn’t they leave politics to party politicians? That’s what India has tried, and look at where it has brought the country. Sarabhai and Sanyal want to influence politics by entering it legitimately, and earn their authority.
They are not seeking a privilege, but asserting a right. In a democracy, a citizen has the fundamental right to participate in her political process, and there is no requirement that she must do this as a party member.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that right, as does the Indian Constitution, based on the principle that all Indians are equal. That right is drawn from rich traditions: Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative values each individual, treating each as equal on moral grounds; as John Rawls argues, because it is fair.
Closer home, Gandhi placed the individual, and not some collective entity such as a political party, at the centre of the universe; millennia ago, Ashoka recognized the individual’s rights, codifying them in his edicts. Gandhi wanted the Congress to be dissolved at independence. Rabindranath Tagore understood that maverick, when he wrote: Jodi tor dak shune keu na ashe tobe ekla cholo re (If no one listens to your call, walk alone).
In closed societies, people who stand up are knocked down. In Vietnam, they say, the tall bamboo shoots are the first to get cut. Everything grows even; too much harmony leads to dull conformity.
On 27 March, in a message to Sanyal, Sarabhai said: “Let’s change the paradigm, my dear.” Sanyal replied: “With you Mallika, all the way. We are the beginning of the change!”
They are being the change they wish to be. Do you still feel cynical about politics?
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org