Irom Sharmila’s recent loss in the Manipur Assembly elections has sparked off a debate. Many commentators, largely on social media, were shocked to learn that Irom Sharmila only managed to get 90 votes. These commentators contrasted Irom Sharmila’s bad show at the elections with her 16 years of struggle against the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA. Many felt that Irom Sharmila’s long and arduous activism should have resulted in her sailing through; or at least ensured a close fight against her opponent.
Like in Manipur, Goa also witnessed a few activists jumping into the electoral arena. Some contested as independent candidates, while others contested on the tickets offered by political parties. In most of these cases these activists performed very poorly. The focus of this article is the activist of a particular kind who contests elections after trying to reform the system from the outside. This activist is deeply connected with localized, environment-related, socially conscious movements and generally hails from the marginalized sections. As such an activist does his/her activism at a huge personal sacrifice. Their activism, by default, makes them anti-establishment.
I would like to briefly discuss the activism of Ravindra Velip, who unsuccessfully contested in Sanguem. The rampant destruction caused by the mining companies in cahoots with the Goa government forced Velip to oppose this destruction of his native village of Caurem. Leading several agitations, Velip and his fellow-activists were arrested in March 2016. Here he suffered a murderous assault. Velip and his fellow villagers in Caurem – a village largely populated by STs – were not necessarily opposed to mining per se but refused to put up with the illegalities of the mining companies and the government. They rather argued that the locals had a claim to the resources of the village, wherein most of the benefits will go to the people of the area rather than giant corporations. Contesting in the constituency of Sanguem, which contains many mines, Velip brought his experiences as an anti-mining activist to his campaign. Indeed, he used his experiences to articulate a politics of change. But the end result was dismal – Velip only received 658 votes.
If one follows Velip’s interventions in the public sphere, it will be clear that his politics is neither lacking in activism nor in idealism. So why did such activism and idealism not translate into a thumping victory? To this, we can suggest that there is a gap between idealism and how people vote. On the other side of the issue, there is also a gap between ideals and how power is brokered once representatives are elected. Recent events leading to the formation of the Manohar Parrikar-led government have shown that electoral verdicts can be turned upside down in a matter of few hours. What happens and what is said behind closed doors is not known to the general public. Removed from the public eye, these negotiations operate in an economy that subverts any politics of idealism.
Away from the corridors of power, it is believed that ‘the people’ form the keystone of the electoral process. If the poor performance of activists in this election is any indication, then it appears that other factors come into play that make people vote for the status quo. One can observe that votes are cast on the basis of the ‘cult of the personality’. This person generally emerges as a leader by making it big in business and/or facilitating the bureaucratic and legal difficulties of the people of his area. He/she is an activist of another type (in common parlance, a ‘social worker’), the quintessential person who gets your work done. This person due to being rich, or of dominant caste, or due to an extensive personal network that he creates habitually reaches out to people in times of need, even if he is conveniently not addressing the structural set up that has caused the problems for the people in the first place. Often this ‘cult of the personality’ neatly fits into the aspiration of various caste groups; sometimes people simply vote because the candidate belongs to their own caste.
What also takes precedence as well over idealism is the access to basic amenities in towns and villages.Voting is done on the basis of how effectively a candidate can deliver development, which in common parlance means water, electricity, roads, or at least claims to effectively deliver this development once elected. (Such a development is not the same as the other type of development which the government promotes through mega-projects). These issues, closest to the lived reality of the people, resonate more effectively than idealism that claims to overhaul the entire system.And, painful as it is, we have to accept that money and other such favors are also exchanged that do affect the outcomes of elections.
To be fair, many activists have actively worked against the exchange of money during elections, and to bring about transparency in the corridors of power, but the fact that it makes very little impact on elections, or on persons in the higher echelons of power suggests that issues of basic amenities, and local or caste-based loyalties take precedence over the current form of idealism.The activist and his/her idealism cannot tackle such well-entrenched power structures as easily as one might think.These ideals seem to not work if pitted against the ‘cult of the personality’ and the exchange of money for votes. Even the anti-incumbency wave doesn’t seem to have much of an impact.
Considering such realities that affect whom people choose to vote in elections,activists need to think more deeply how idealism needs to be compatible with the complex decisions that people make whilst voting. It will be quite tragic if politics in Goa does not get enriched by the huge sacrifices made by activists from marginalized communities, and if principles of liberty, equality, and justice are not deepened in Goan politics. Or else, we will only witness more power struggles detrimental to public interests.
(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 29 March, 2017)