On a recent morning when I had locked my front door and gone out, a ‘road widening gang’ turned up with crowbars and dug up the foundations of my verandah while removing the pavement slabs. I returned home to find the 30-feet-long iron grill at my door hanging precariously because the base had been dug up. It could topple on, and kill, some passersby.
I ran to the corporation office, where I was told to contact the private contractor – who was not available – after which I called up the area corporator (“He is with the minister”) and finally ran to the local MLA’s office. He expressed helplessness. “It is a municipality-contractor nexus” he declared. Finally, to avoid an accident, I spent Rs 9,000 from my pocket, to repair the damage. I was told that this was a common tactic, to wreak damage at houses that are locked; the contractor comes round later and offers to “repair the damage ” for a few thousand rupees.
Two weeks later, the same MLA came, with folded hands and an ingratiating smile, going from door to door, seeking votes “to serve you all for another term”.
Do I boycott him and his party, and vote for his opponent? I have a file thick with clippings reporting on how cash, ceiling fans, saris, liquor, and sundry gifts, were being distributed to voters, by all the parties. I also have lists of promises each candidate and party made – “all farmers’ loans will be written off within 24 hours of my taking charge” by the Karnataka chief minister last year; “Housing for all by 2020” (just seven months away – and there are 520 slums officially listed in Bengaluru alone); “No power cuts this year, the situation is satisfactory” declared another minister – almost every day since then, there have been unscheduled power cuts in the metropolis. “Rs 15 lakhs into every citizen’s account”. And so on. Ministers’ promises make an impressive pile of clippings – but nothing changes on the ground.
The widowed banana seller sitting by the roadside has to give a bunch of fruit free to the policemen who turn up regularly, or they stamp on her basket of fruit and go away laughing. I wrote to the Congress minister about a ration shop that was cheating an indigent widow with three kids; the minister “instructed” his deputy to “look into it”. Nothing happened – the ration shop fellow, in fact, threatened the widow, and she got rattled. The minister is “too busy” to look into grievances personally, and has no control over lower level staff.
This party or that, nothing changes on the ground, for the majority of citizens, the poor and the powerless and voiceless. This is not the “democracy” that my school texts defined as “government of the people, for the people, by the people”. What we have is a government of the powerful (money-ed), for the elite and by the VIPs. Giving voters’ slips once in five years does not make it a democracy.
Especially since it is anything but a “free” election – money, gifts and gadgets, liquor, other enticements, loads of ‘promises’, garner votes. I have voted in eight general elections, and have known well-meaning (and honest) independent candidates losing their deposits because, as one voter put it, “he gave us nothing, the BJP gave Rs 2,000 to each slum dweller.”
I watched these tactics last time and went to a slum to tell each voter that since he or she is poor, by all means, take the gifts offered, you need the sari and money, but you can still vote for whoever you choose. I was not canvassing, only spreading awareness about voters’ rights. By evening, word had spread that an elderly woman was going from hut to hut, “influencing the voters”, and a gang of goondas was trying to identify who I was.
My family got worried that I may be attacked. Shouldn’t the politicians tell voters, especially the illiterates, that they are free to vote for whoever they want? How else does an election become meaningful? One of the slum women even said, “How can I vote for another party, when I have taken gifts from this party? That’s wrong behaviour.” What a devastating comment on ethics among the poor, but not among the moneyed power-seekers.
One veteran Congress leader who served as a governor and chief minister joined the BJP. So what ‘ideology’ do voters go by ?
One-third of the candidates have criminal cases against them, one has even been implicated in the Malegaon blast. Another “leader” declares that if a certain community doesn’t vote for her, she will ensure that they get no help when she comes to power. One high profile minister of Karnataka declares that a steel flyover costing thousands of crores, which citizens are strongly opposing, will be built “despite people’s objections”. So where are the people’s voices in such a democracy? A ‘government by the people, for the people’? Hardly.
Thousands of crores of public money go into erecting statues of dead leaders, while thousands of oustees at the same Narmada dam site remain destitute for years. There is “no money” to pay road sweepers for months in Bengaluru, but the chief minister wants a “grand” kumbh mela “ in Karnataka, “never mind the expense”. The Karnataka government also announced a Rs 1,200 crore “Disneyland-like” amusement park at Brindavan gardens, while government clinics have “no stock” of medicines and force patients to turn to private hospitals, causing indebtedness among the poor. Headlines like “Odisha’s Bolangir district (one of the poorest in the country) is home to rich politicians” say it all. Democracy? Not in my view.
Independent candidates, then? Those in the field are inexperienced, second-generation scions of powerful politicians, with no proven record of abilities or commitment. One is a film actor (fielded for the votes that his fan following will garner). The ‘anti-incumbency factor’ gives voters the clout to throw out one party and install the other – but does that make a difference? Estimates of expenses incurred in the latest elections run to Rs 50,000 crores. How many clinics could that money have built, how many schools could have been provided with drinking water? Do citizens have the clout to question such spending and are their voices heard?
Journalists who raise such issues are hounded, punished, arrested and even killed. If dissent is throttled, what kind of democracy is it? Each party makes its money handing out contracts while in power and doesn’t mind making way for the other party. For the banana sellers, debt-ridden farmers and starving widows, it is the local tahsildar or clerk who has to be bribed before anything gets done.
Honest officials and employees get transferred or suspended like the police employee who searched the prime minister’s helicopter. As poet-patriot Subramanya Bharati sang, “If even one Indian goes hungry, we will protest (thani oruvanuk-kunavillai enil); everyone will be a ‘king “mannar” in independent Bharat. Name a road after Bharati near India gate in Delhi, but forget about his dreams of a “rama rajya country’.
Which reminds me – if India is only for Hindus, what about the Taj Mahal, one of the world’s top tourist attractions, which was built by a Muslim emperor? And the Red Fort from which every prime minister, including those from the rightist parties, makes a ritual independence day speech to the nation? Where would Hindustani music be, if one removed the contributions of the Muslim ustads?
What about Abraham Pandithar, a Christian, and his seminal contributions to Carnatic music?
So who should I vote for? Several villages in Belagavi district (Karnataka) have boycotted the polls protesting against the lack of basic facilities.
The father of the nation taught us the power of boycott, even in fighting against the mighty British empire. We are heading towards another kind of ‘empire’ based on money, power and clout, where millions of disadvantaged citizens get sidelined and their rights trampled. And I disapprove. I did try the NOTA (None of the Above ) button last time but it makes no difference. It is still a ‘first past the post’ system. So I choose to boycott.
Sakuntala Narasimhan is former vice-president, Consumer Guidance Society of India (Mumbai) and a National Award-winning columnist on consumer rights.