The coming of age of the Indian voter

The country votes in its next government five months from now and the state elections held in November were considered the semi-final. Everyone agrees that the coming parliamentary election will be an epochal one, whichever side wins or manages to cobble together some sort of majority. The Indian voter shall speak her mind.

It is of course a miracle of the first order that India is a democracy and has managed to remain so. There are enough examples of countries unshackling themselves from colonialism, declaring themselves as democracies and then quickly becoming one-party, one-man authoritarian regimes. In our best-to-be-forgotten sham non-aligned past, India has even awarded some of these brutal and possibly half-mad dictators with the Nehru Peace Prize.

But India went for a true democracy. There does not seem to have been any dispute over what form of government to choose. We simply followed the British and American model (though the leaders of the Congress at the time of independence probably could not have imagined that their party would ever lose power). And we must remember that “democracy" is a very useful concept. Especially for people who do not practise it. As George Orwell, who knew the hypocrisy of political systems and the value of individual liberty better than any man, wrote: “It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it; consequently, the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning."

So, the official name of North Korea is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Which brings us to the people. The voters. To say that the Indian voter is an intelligent being has become a kind of non sequitur. Everyone says it ad nauseam and the person whom you are talking about gets her jollies out of it. She believes it and takes pride in it. She has been told till her eardrums are in danger of bursting that she is the real power in her country; it is she who rules, she can bring politicians down to their knees whenever she wants—oh, OK, once every five years.

We have had elections in four states a few weeks ago. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost 3-0 to the Congress. The voter decided. There has been enough political analysis on the various reasons for her decision. The easiest fallback for analysts—in the case of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh—is anti-incumbency. Now, “anti-incumbency" is a peculiarly Indian construct, unheard of in other democracies. It means about the same as: I’m bored with this show, let’s switch channels. Anti-incumbency is no logic at all, but the concept has been drilled into our heads for so many years that we accept it unquestioningly.

Other reasons being given are various caste equations and the Congress’s promise of farm loan waivers. If this reasoning is correct, then all one can say is that our democracy has not worked as well as we keep claiming from the rooftops and our voter is not that smart after all. If caste is still the factor that swings votes more than any other appeal, then we surely as a nation have not moved forward a great deal. And if the promise of farm loan waivers works so well, then our voter is much more interested in immediate short-term gains than any real improvement of her situation.

My first interaction with India’s democratic system was 30 years ago, in 1989. I was on a road trip through the length and breadth of Odisha (then Orissa), trying to sell some finance schemes that my company had to offer people to buy televisions and two-wheelers.

The Lok Sabha elections were in the air, and as our trusty Ambassador (the only music we had was a cassette of the film Tridev) zipped through towns, villages, forests and flatlands glowing red with the iron ore that just lay beneath, we saw a lot of electioneering. We also stopped at a lot of dhabas and gave lifts to many people on their way to wherever they wanted to go. And obviously, we asked, who was going to win?

The conclusion we reached after all these many conversations was that the Congress was going to win hands down. Every common voter said so. A few weeks later, when the results were announced, we found that the Congress had won only three seats out of 21 in the state.

What we had not paid attention to was the tone in which our respondents had replied to our question. Each and every one of them had said: “Nahin, Congress hi jeetega (No, Congress will win)." What that translated to was: I am not going to vote for the Congress, but I think they’re going to win. Everyone thought that and the Congress lost.

Some days after I had returned from my Orissa trip, I stood in line for the first time to vote, and saw what booth management means at the ground level. This was Calcutta, in a locality where not too many people were expected to vote for CPI(M). The CPI(M) observer at the election booth randomly challenged people standing in the queue, questioned their identity and asked them to come back with proof, like ration cards. The Congress observer sat meekly in one corner and did not object.

Obviously, most of the people who were turned back never returned to stand at the back of a two-hour-long queue. The queue was also two hours long because CPI(M) workers had jammed up and slowed the lines, so that genuine voters would get frustrated and go home without casting their vote.

Then there were whispered reports that there had been some crude bombs thrown nearby—a few miles away, but it was no longer safe to be in the voting queue. A subtle panic spread. People left. I stayed on and voted. I did not vote for the CPI(M).

Many things have happened since then. T.N. Seshan happened, the voter ID card happened, the Election Commission grew to be one of the finest and resolute guardians of our democracy. And India will always remain a democracy, unless a Marvel Comic super-villain strikes. That probability is less than negligible.

We Indians love our democratic system. We know that and a 2017 Pew Research Center study covering 38 countries confirms this. According to the survey, a global median of 78% back government by elected representatives. But the intensity of this support varies significantly between nations. For instance, only 8% of Brazilians and 9% of Mexicans agree that democracy is “very good". There is significantly strong opposition to representative democracy in countries such as Colombia (24% say it is very bad) and Tunisia (23% say it is very bad). Seventy-five percent of Indians think that representative democracy is good or very good.

Direct democracy, a governing system where citizens, not elected officials, vote directly on major national issues, is supported by roughly two-thirds of the public around the world. The strongest support for governing through referenda is found in Turkey (84%), where 53% of the public say it would be very good to have citizens vote on major national issues. Lebanon (83%) and Kenya (80%) also show broad support for direct democracy. The Indian figure is 76%.

The message is clear: the common Indian wants to run her country, either through representative or direct democracy.

The question of course is: Is she doing so?

I remember speaking with a very senior politician some years ago, who said that the political class was scared. He blamed television for it. He said that for decades the poor in the country did not know how the rich lived and what they themselves were deprived of. But with the spread of satellite TV and its melodramatic serials about the super-rich—palatial houses with winding staircases, actresses wearing tonnes of jewellery—suddenly, the homemaker living in a village on the outskirts of Aligarh or Ambola saw what the 0.1% of the populace lived like and how much they wasted thoughtlessly.

The result was anger and aspiration. We may be living in a country at a time when aspirations have never been so high and the people know their rights very well. Their expectations have risen and they keep demanding more and they are growing increasingly impatient. The politician I was speaking with told me in no uncertain terms that political parties had no clue how to live up to those expectations. A five-year democratic cycle just did not give them enough time even if they were well-meaning and wanted to serve the people.

The easy way out for politicians on the campaign trail has been to deride the rivals, with or without any basis, and to offer freebies. And let the future of the people go to hell—the future is just five years long anyway.

In a representative democracy, the voter is faced with limited choice. She is given a list of people—ranging from the idealistic to the criminal-minded, the merely ambitious to the daughter-in-law of a powerful politician—and she is asked to choose between them. Or not, for None of the Above (NOTA) is now an option.

In fact, the use of NOTA in the recent state elections perhaps indicates the true coming of age of the Indian voter. In Madhya Pradesh, at least 22 assembly seats were decided by a victory margin of less than the votes polled under NOTA.

It means that thousands and thousands of people took the trouble of coming to the polling booth, queuing up and then saying that they did not trust any of the candidates or parties on offer to give them what they needed. They did not stay home; they voted and they showed their dissatisfaction. They knew what democracy means and democracy is all the more richer because of them. By rejecting the “above", they were making a very strong statement about how they felt lower down. May their numbers multiply. It should be ample cause for rejoicing.

This is a game-changing event that not too many people seem to have noticed. But I am sure that the politicians have. And they must be at least slightly befuddled. One can only hope that befuddlement leads to insecurity.

And the more insecure the politician is, the stronger the voter gets. This is good for democracy, for India and for Indians.

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