Ranjona Banerji: Vote now or forever hold your peace
If you do not seek accountability from our political parties, if you do not stand up for your rights as a citizen, you will get zilch
People wait in queue to cast votes at a polling station in Noida during the first phase of Assembly polls for Uttar Pradesh on Saturday. Pic/PTI
With election season on full swing across India, you will hear familiar refrains from people. It usually has to do with how they hope politics would somehow be different. This “different” could be some vague idea of “cleaner” politics, with more accountability, or it could be a desire for “leadership” or it could be the notion that we don’t really need a government or that all we need is a strict nanny with a whip to keep us in order.
In India, we also say that we wish religion and caste did not matter so much. Of course, when we say this, we mean that we wish people of religions other than ours and castes other than ours should not get more attention than us. We interpret any attention paid to other religions and castes as “sops” and we fool ourselves that life is a level playing field. Therefore, we usually do not mean: “We wish there was no discrimination on the basis of religion or caste.”
Sadly, it is often the majority which gets this false idea of persecution. Look at America now, where sections of the dominant race would like to pretend it has not persecuted others in the past and that there are no reparations to be made and everyone except them is lazy, criminally-inclined, venal and so on. Donald Trump saw that sense of insecurity and most successfully played upon it. The other side of this is that those of “other” races, religions, castes and so on feel further hemmed in and become more dependent on each other, shutting out society at large.
There is also an ambivalent feeling towards those less fortunate than us — for whatever reasons. Like those from other religions and castes, people whom life has dealt a harder hand are also undeserving of political attention and “sops” for some of us. Life through our own prism makes us inward-looking and probably a bit miserable since we see ourselves as permanent victims.
Therefore, is not politics what we make of it rather than what it actually is? When we choose a political party or a political direction, are we not trying to find solutions to our own insecurities or fears or even occasionally, our hopes? The same voter who believed Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his promise of development now finds that the Prime Minister has spent more time mocking his predecessor and other parties than providing much new development ideas... of course, apart from the horror of demonetisation.
There is a larger core problem here as well. What do people really want from government? It’s not just about visceral issues like race and religion-based insecurities. It’s also about down to earth practical stuff. People say they want better roads, schools, sanitation, water supply, healthcare... they want things to work.
And who provides the answers to these practical problems? The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, which goes to the polls this month. Much attention is being paid to the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. Big rallies, bigger speeches, biggest media attention is being offered to the masses. Often, there are big voter turnouts as well.
And for municipal elections? Last time around, I wandered about a couple of Mumbai suburbs in the afternoon on a voting day. It was a lovely sunny day with an invigorating breeze. Poll attendants and political helpdesks sat out in the sun, under the trees, chatting. Where are the voters, I asked them. “A few came in the morning and we have been receiving an occasional voter here and there,” they replied.
There, you have your answer! Better roads, better sanitation, better schools, better healthcare coming your way, right? Yes, there is no guarantee that if you vote you will get those things. But there is a definite guarantee that if you do not bother, if you do not demand accountability, if you do not stand up for your rights as a citizen, you will get zilch.
Dreams of a “strong” leadership lead to Hitler, Mao and Stalin. And the improbable promises of Donald Trump.
In the most readable and fascinating book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Dr Yuval Noah Harari talks about the human ability to believe in “fictions” which sets us apart. Politics is one of our most enduring fictions. You might argue it is us!
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org