Keeping up with the Mahatma

It is October 2 today, but before we reach Mahatma Gandhi, we must not forget the present big newsmakers and their effect on democracy. There’s BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and his bombastic hot air pronouncements. And there’s the Congress’s putative heir Rahul Gandhi and his sudden visitations and random outbursts aimed at moving targets. If you believe some people, this is what the next general election is all about.

Ahead of his times: There is a reason why Mahatma Gandhi was so admired across the world and loved by people in his lifetime; he had both compassion and wisdom. Pic/AFP

But like MK Gandhi, sometimes you need to speak to the people themselves and what are their main problems? Health, education, roads, sanitation... and who looks after these? Well, it’s not going to be either Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi unless they stand for the next municipal elections in your area. Time after time, election discussions prove that what affects people the most is what happens in their day to day lives. The trouble of course is that general elections are about other matters. Governance -- that much touted word -- is first experienced at the local or municipal level and that is where it is (usually) least practised. Cue in the Mahatma again.

It takes some talking to convince people -- especially the educated -- that a Lok Sabha MP cannot ensure that the garbage truck arrives at your apartment building on time or that a municipal school has enough teachers. But speak to any slum dweller and they know exactly who is in charge of what. I live on a road which also houses a local BJP office as well as a famous school. In spite of this, the road is almost always littered with piles of garbage (some chucked by the school children) and the paver blocks on the pavements look like they’ve been hit by a major earthquake. Nothing can save you perhaps when the local councillor from the ruling combine in the municipal corporation cannot fix the two problems loosely under her domain.

This is not to suggest that other issues do not affect elections. The Emergency did Indira Gandhi in. But the coalition government which ousted her did itself no favours either. VP Singh took Bofors round the country and that certainly helped Rajiv Gandhi lose an election but Singh did not last very long. These big ticket issues might build up a huge momentum but that tricky voter can keep you on tenterhooks when he or she steps out on polling day. And unlike our big-talking middle classes and above, the man and woman on the street knows who does what.

The question is, between the everyday issues and the hot air masquerading as eternal wisdom, does the Indian voter really have a choice?

Effective democracy has to be about more than voting and listening to media grandstanding. The usual tokenism about Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday will happen across India today, even as the people associated with the ideology behind his assassination dominate our TV screens. Mahatma Gandhi had many faults -- unlike those who assassinated him, who are apparently perfect. As he said, “I look only to the good qualities of men. Not being faultless myself, I won’t presume to probe into the faults of others.”

But there is a reason why he was so admired across the world and loved by people in his lifetime; he had both compassion and wisdom. Both these are now seen as weak qualities, especially when words like “leadership” and “authority” are thrown around as if we are all sheep in a herd or management trainees in a chewing gum producing company or even children in a classroom.

As we ruminate on the importance of bluster in winning elections (as the roads buckle up through bad maintenance), maybe there’s time for a little wisdom from the great man: “Liberty and democracy become unholy when their hands are dyed red with innocent blood.”

Perhaps then until we understand both democracy and liberty we are stuck with demagogues, occasional visitors and of course that pile of smelly garbage piled up outside your gate.  

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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