Tuesday, 28 March 2017

ACTIVISM, IDEALISM, AND REALITIES ON THE GROUND



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)

Friday, 10 March 2017

WHAT IS THE VALUE OF ONE VOTE?



Having gone to the polls on 4 February, Goa is awaiting the results of the assembly elections with bated breath. Known to be pro-active in terms of exercising its democratic franchise, Goa’s 83 percent voter turnout was praised by all. The month-long wait for the results, however, is witnessing controversies around such issues as those of irregularities in the voting process through postal ballots, and the enrollment of around 600 army men as voters in the Navelim constituency. These controversies have cast doubts on whether elections in Goa were conducted in a free and fair manner. In the months leading to the elections, Goa saw spirited media campaigns conducted not only by the political parties, but also the Chief Electoral Officer, Goa (CEO) who forms part of the Election Commission entrusted with ensuring free and fair elections. While a blitzkrieg of media outreach and advertising was expected of the various political parties, the CEO’s social media and other outreach campaigns were also interesting in the manner in which it tried to convince voters to participate in large numbers.

As part of the initiative, the CEO introduced pink polling stations (decorated with pink balloons and managed by women officers) to encourage women to vote, gave out pink teddy bears to first-time female voters, used different Goan personalities from various walks of life as ‘election icons’, organized selfie contests on Facebook, and used the live broadcast feature on Facebook during the press-conferences. The voter turnout of this elections as compared to the last assembly election in 2012 indicate that Goa’s participation has remained stable, prompting the local press to remark that a 80 percent turnout seems to be the “norm”. Goa recorded 83 percent voter turnout in this elections, as compared to the 82.2 per cent recorded in the 2012 assembly elections.


While the voter turnout is considered as a crucial marker to judge the success of a particular election as well as to ascertain the future of the democratic setup, we can talk about the implications of the CEO’s massive outreach campaign. The CEO made appeals for ethical voting to the Goan populace. At a time when successive governments in Goa have failed to deliver basic amenities to the people, and instead brought in massive developmental projects that destroy the fragile ecology of Goa what do calls for ethical voting mean and imply for the Goan people? Being a neutral body, the implications of the CEO’s outreach are not necessarily confined to the time when the model code of conduct is in force, but also extends long after the elections are over.

Consider one of the videos that were posted on the CEO’s Facebook page as part of the voter awareness program. The video shows a group of four young friends who plan to enjoy themselves rather than vote on election day. Each of these persons gets smacked in the head by a large object every time they suggest an activity other than voting. It turns out that this large object is in fact a book – the Constitution of India. Getting smacked in the head by a book – the Constitution no less! – is not a pleasant experience. The flipside of such aggressive media campaigning is rather unimaginable: no governmental body, least of all the Election Commission, would ever start a media campaign during elections which depicts a politician or bureaucrat being whacked on the head by the Constitution for failing to discharge their duties honestly and ethically. The imagery of violence is unfortunate given the fact that violence is routine for most of the marginalized communities in India.

It is very problematic to solely blame the ‘voter’ for the ills of the system. The similar voter turnout in the 2012 and 2017 assembly elections indicates that blaming voters is a superficial way of offering moot causes for the breakdown of governance. Voters are voting, yet we do not see change for the better. Calls for ethical voting, such as the ones we witnessed leading to the assembly elections in Goa, do not take into account the fact the once elections are over there is very little accountability that the citizens can demand of governmental machinery and the elected representatives.

In the Goan setting, campaigns for ethical voting by a governmental body exposes contradictions within governance itself. In the absence of a proper ‘social contract’ in which the government is entrusted with the welfare of the populace, calls for ethical voting mean very little. The simple fact is that successive governments have not been able to look after the welfare of the people of Goa. Asking the youth to come out in large numbers when the government messes up such crucial educational policies as the Medium of Instruction (MoI), or asking people to vote honestly when basic amenities like housing and drinking water are not accessible to all, is in itself a contradiction.

If we consider the MoI issue where a large number of Goan parents are demanding the right to choose the English language as a medium of instruction in primary schools (in addition to other regional languages), then it appears that successive elections have failed to resolve the issue despite repeated promises. Rather than resolving the issue, successive governments have communalized the demand for English as MoI as a Catholic versus Hindu issue, thereby pitting one community against the other.

Since we began this reflection on campaigns for ethical voting during the Goa 2017 assembly elections with reference to the Constitution of India, it would not be out of place to refer to an oft-quoted statement of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. On the eve of the Constitution coming into force, Dr. Ambedkar had said, “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value”.

What Ambedkar meant by contradictions was the existence of caste-based and other inequalities antithetical to basic human dignity. This inequality, fundamental to the Indian social structure, was precisely what prevented the realization of the true potential of voting in a democratic setup. The existence of caste- and class-based inequalities does not allow all constituents in India’s democracy to participate as equals. Everyone either votes to maintain status quo of entrenched caste privileges or votes in a particular way to ensure one’s own survival from the dominance of powerful groups. The larger issues of accountability, efficient governance, and access to basic amenities take a back seat.

Giving freebies like pink teddy bears goes against the Constitutional idea of one-person-one-value as it deepens gender stereotypes and treats first time voters as juveniles happy to receive toys. If one is considered qualified to vote at 18 years of age and is considered to be capable of making informed choices regarding the future of the body politic, then it should be ideally done without expecting any gifts in return.

The implications of the social media outreach and the calls for ethical voting (by anyone) run far deeper than creating a large voter turnout. What we witnessed in the Goan case is an assumption of a moral position vis-à-vis voting. In itself, asking people to vote for a greater good falls within the scope of conducting fair and free elections. However, appeals for ethical voting need to consider how governance has failed most of the people who vote in every election. A moral position on voting cannot simply target those who do not vote ethically, or those who do not vote at all. It should recognize that the political class is responsible for the failure of democracy too.

The question still remains: what is the value of the one vote each of us casts every election? 

(Illustrations by Angela Ferrao. First published in raiot.in on 10 March, 2017)