The Disabled as Vote Bank: Is it an Oxymoron?

It is high time disability is seen as a mainstream issue in politics. The media too has a responsibility to ensure that people with disabilities are not merely seen as ‘objects of charity’.

The political class looking at a section of the society as a ‘vote bank’ is not necessarily a bad thing. Credit: Reuters

The political class looking at a section of the society as a ‘vote bank’ is not necessarily a bad thing. Credit: Reuters

The Economic Survey 2018 is out, the annual Budget has been presented and now all the issues are increasingly getting pointed towards the much-awaited general elections next year. Amidst all this, the opinion polls have started coming in and are being presented in lengthy panel discussions on TV news debates.

Not only do these polls predict who’s going to get how many seats in the elections, these also talk about caste considerations, about inclinations of female voters, about the mood of youngsters, about urban voters, rural voters, voters from different states, voters from different age-groups etc. But never in the history of Indian politics or in the data presented by an opinion poll has one seen the presence of disabled people, their inclinations, their issues, their choices as voters.

Now, there are many terms used for the disabled, some use the term ‘persons with disability’, ‘physically challenged’, ‘physically handicapped’, ‘differently-abled’ and lastly ‘Divyang’. None of these terms does one see or even expect to see in an opinion poll debate, primarily because people with disabilities have never been seen as a ‘vote bank’.

The political class looking at a section of the society as a ‘vote bank’ is not necessarily a bad thing. When the noted Indian sociologist M.N. Srinivas coined this term for the first time in his 1951 paper entitled ‘The Social System of a Mysore Village’, he used it in the context of political influence exerted by a patron over a client. Though over the years, the meaning of vote bank politics has evolved and many political commentators see it in a negative light.

One can often hear people say we are not just a ‘vote bank’ of the political class. But, being a vote bank has a bigger meaning attached to it. This means the political class or political parties know which section of voters to appeal to and, therefore, many government policies have come out in the past to satisfy the demand of various vote banks. If being seen as a vote bank is a problem, then not being seen as one is a much bigger problem.

Persons with disabilities have never been seen as a vote bank by the political class because first, they have been treated as ‘third class citizens’, who are often dependent on someone else for their day-to-day activities.

Second, politicians across the spectrum don’t deem it useful enough to talk about disability issues in mainstream politics, because most of them are either unaware of issues or they simply don’t care about it. This was witnessed by the country when there was little discussion, questions raised, any objections between parliamentarians when the Disability Bill was tabled in both the Houses of parliament for discussion in December 2016.

At best, people with disabilities are seen as ‘objects of charity’.

Third, it is believed that the votes of people with disabilities don’t matter that much because they are relatively few in number and that they as a section of society can’t do much in return for the political class, which the other sections of voters – divided on the basis of caste, class, region, gender or age group – can.

Fourth, the ‘able-bodied’ political class and the society, in general, have never treated the ‘differently abled’ as equal citizens. The next to the non-existent representation of people with disabilities in areas like politics, judiciary, media, higher lever bureaucracy etc shows the level of life they live in general.

This has been the case ever since. Making election booths disabled-friendly is not exactly mainstreaming disability in the discourse of politics. Sadly, people with disabilities as a ‘section’ are not seen as one which can stand and fight against the political class. Also, since every other section has a representative face in politics or even political parties who claim to represent a particular section, who represents the ‘differently abled’ in politics?

Also read: India Has a Long Road Ahead to Combat Challenges Faced by Persons With Disabilities

Has there been any political party which, apart from showing their support to pass new disability legislation, has ever placed the issue of people with disabilities in their mainstream agenda?

Today, as per a World Bank report, there are around than 40-80 million people with disabilities in the country, though the official data as per the 2011 population Census puts the figure at 26.8 million.

These numbers are just too large by any standards and even then political parties haven’t started to see them as potential vote banks. Not only the political class, even the media has done a big disservice to disability as a sector. How many news channels or newspapers have assigned even a single reporter who covers just this huge area?

The reason why the media is being questioned here is that they are the voice of the citizens, of the oppressed and the neglected, and if they are not, they should be. By not talking about disability issues or even while covering disability, putting it under a single column story in some mid-section page of a newspaper, or showing a single clip on disability-related story is doing a great disservice to this section of people, as the media owes the responsibility of giving proper feedback to the political class.

The truth is that the political class is blissfully ignorant about disability issues and people with disabilities. Those who are in a position of power (not necessarily limited to the political class), feel proud of their contribution to any person with a disability even if they have provided a ‘bare-minimum’ facility. Most of the disability-related news is either about an inspirational story of a person with a disability who has achieved something in life, or it is about some NGO or a politician or some philanthropist distributing prosthetics to them.

It is high time that disability is seen as a mainstream issue in politics. In the journey of 70 years as an independent nation, if there is one class which has seen and continues to see neglect and is ignored, it is the disabled class. This being the pre-election year, the least the political class can do is start raising issues related to disability.

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