Give us something worth voting for
Sadhvi Sharma reports from Bombay on the gimmicks and threats that were used to get people voting in the elections.
BOMBAY — The world’s biggest vote came to an end on 13 May, with the fifth and final phase of the seventeenth parliamentary elections in India. With an estimated 714million people eligible to vote, over 800,000 polling stations and four million election workers, the Lok Sabha (lower house) elections have dominated the media for the past few weeks. The governing United Progressive Alliance, led by Congress, increased its share of seats in parliament, yet the real outcome of this election has been a general rejection of the political class.
As well as being the usual colossal logistical feat, the call to vote this year was more widely publicised than ever. There has been a host of campaigns aimed at popularising democracy, making voting ‘cool’ and luring the urban middle classes, otherwise considered apathetic, to the ballot boxes, often using the language of ‘duty’. But the urban centres, especially Bombay, chose to give the polls a miss, leaving civil society, media pundits and celebrity activists struggling for an explanation.
‘I am stunned. I don’t know what went wrong’, said actor-turned-citizen-activist, Rahul Bose. How could it not have worked? After the terror attacks of 26 November 2008 in Bombay – usually referred to as 26/11 – there was a great deal of anger directed against the political classes, with expressions of solidarity in other major cities of India. The media had dubbed it an unprecedented show of political activism, one that brought the middle classes out of their comfort zones and on to the streets.
Activists had hoped that well over 60 per cent of the electorate would vote. The actual turnout was 43.5 per cent, lower than 2004’s 47.5 per cent. There are now endless discussions and analyses on what might have gone wrong, and even on whether voting should be made compulsory. Politicians, too, have been quick to blame voters for their apathy. But many voters’ refusal to show up at the polling booths is hardly surprising, given that the only thing active throughout this election campaign was cynicism and a disdain for politics, both among leaders and the public.
Right after 26/11, socialites, actors, college students and young professionals came on to the streets with placards screaming ‘Enough is enough!’. Looking trendy in their tank tops and tees, many collegians held up placards with the buzzword of our times: ‘Change.’ Although Bombay has seen worse instances of violence, terror and death, this was different. The November attacks took place in the backyards of the elite: South Bombay, a part of the city synonymous with wealth and home to the city’s five-star hotels, industrialists, socialites, and top government officials. The 26/11 attacks were seen as the ‘wake-up call’ for the middle classes who have otherwise been accused of complacency. The election, just five months later, was seen as the perfect opportunity to have a say.
The pro-voting campaigns led by citizen groups, NGOs and media leaders ended up reducing democracy and politics to a management exercise where voting becomes a selection process for the ‘best candidate’, never mind which party he or she belongs to. Voting became an end in itself, with the assumption that politics is inherently debased. What was described as electoral ‘activism’ was really a preoccupation with corruption and with individual politician’s credentials, in terms of education, personal background, cars owned and assets declared. Some of the leading newspapers published the vital statistics on each candidate before every election phase, in a bid to acquaint the public with their local politician.
Several websites popped up to educate the public about the importance of voting. Mumbaivotes.com declared ‘Without information, you can only vote. But with information, you can select.’ Other websites and NGOs offered to help first-time voters. The Hindustan Times even published a list of frequently asked questions for the uninitiated, explaining what to expect at the polling stations, starting with ‘What time can I vote?’. A day before Bombay went to the polls, the newspaper put up a ‘comprehensive guide of dos and don’ts’ to help ‘choose the right candidate’.
On the morning of the elections, I was woken up by a text from the Times of India, urging me to vote and asking me to ‘convince a friend’ to vote: ‘Today is the day to prove that together, we the educated middle classes can make a difference.’ The newspaper also carried a full-page ad that explained in further detail why I should vote. ‘We owe it to ourselves, and to our children, to take a much greater interest in our representatives’, it pontificated. Another campaign group, ‘Vote at 8’ – literally telling people to vote at 8am – handed out t-shirts to young people with the slogan ‘Don’t be a loser, be a voter’.
All of this turned voting into the thing itself, the main part of the political process, overriding the question of who to vote for and why. To be a good citizen, it is essential to vote. Many people implored me to vote, not for some ideology I supported or believed in, but simply for the ‘lesser evil’. The assumption is that politics is inherently corrupt, but at least we can make an informed decision based on the published assets of individuals and the degrees they hold.
In Delhi, some stores even offered ‘democracy discounts’, where those who could prove they had voted could buy things at cut price (1). One store gave out mugs and wristbands saying ‘I Voted’ to those who showed their voting marks (in India, an indelible ink is used to mark voters’ fingernails as proof of their vote). Here, people are effectively blackmailed into voting, offered financial reward for filling in their ballots. A 20-year-old student told a newspaper that these offers were more effective than the TV adverts with Bollywood stars urging people to vote: ‘I have seen these advertisements, but was not convinced [to vote]. However, the discounts being offered for showing the ink mark is more exciting.’ Another first-time voter thought the voting mark could become a fashion symbol. She told the Times of India: ‘I think it is a motivation for people, as now they will get something in lieu of their vote’. So much for political activism.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime ministerial candidate, LK Advani, now demands that voting be made compulsory (2). Others have suggested that non-voters should be fined. Thankfully, the Supreme Court threw that idea out of the window, saying coercion could not be used to make people vote (3).
Politicians are disappointed, some even annoyed, that the middle classes have yet again let them down, killing their chances of coming to power. They have been quick to berate citizens for criticising politicians. Apparently, we have no right to express a political opinion or demand better of our politicians if we do not exercise our vote. So the political mess in our country must be our fault. It hasn’t occurred to them that voter apathy might just be an indication of their own inability to inspire people with a political vision or any argument worth a vote.
With over 300 registered political parties in India, this is a country divided along ideologies. The only two national parties, the BJP and Congress, have steadily lost their mandate, leaving them at the mercy of the many regional parties that are the deciding factor in who leads the country. Even after these elections, Congress will still need to govern by coalition. Politics has become an end in itself, where different parties are left to their own devices, each one working out different permutations and combinations so that it can be a part of the ruling government, or trying to cobble together some kind of ‘third front’ or ‘fourth front’ that excludes the national parties. The people are mere spectators to this drama.
For those campaigning for higher turnout, the democratic value of voting has been reinvented as a moral one, as they patronisingly educate the public about the benefits of participation. Despite the candlelight vigils after 26/11, it should be no surprise that the majority still abstained in the absence of any inspirational politics worth voting for.
Sadhvi Sharma is a writer based in Bombay.
Previously on spiked
Josie Appleton discussed India’s revolt against the political class in 2004. Sadhvi Sharma reported on how Bombay bounced back after the terror attacks. Jennie Bristow noted the low turnout in the 2005 UK General Election and argued that compulsory voting is no solution. Suzy Dean thought that extending voting rights to the young merely glossed over the problems of politics. Read more at spiked issue: India.
(1) Vote, get a ‘democracy discount’, Times of India, 26 April 2009
(2) Advani favours fixed legislature terms, compulsory voting, Times of India, 30 April 2009
(3) SC dismisses plea to make voting compulsory, Sify News, 17 April 2009
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