Sunday, April 10, 2011

Why don’t we middle-class urbanites just come out and vote? Why do we like to be armchair critics?

I’ve had strong words to write against the methods used by Anna Hazare (AH) in the recent anti-corruption movement; never against the causes he has taken up. Corruption is rampant and it’s good that AH has managed to not only draw attention to it, but also force the government to concede a specific timeline for enacting an appropriate law. Can we now turn our attention to ourselves – we middle-class urbanites....who backed him up to the hilt, but don’t back the democratic set-up to the same passionate extent? Because if we don’t attend to it, we will never be able to succeed as a democracy.....and I think the alternative is far worse.

I am talking of the full scale demonstration of middle-class irresponsibility at the time of elections. In spite of all the efforts made by media, NGOs and the government itself, middle-class voters simply refuse to come out and vote. The more posh the area, the less the voting %. I am told Bandra in Bombay and Jor Bagh in Delhi have amongst the lowest voting % amongst all metros. Not participating in elections makes us “armchair critics”......cribbing about the many ills in the society, but not doing even the basic thing that we must do in a democracy. It also rids our support to AH of morality.....what would we say if AH were to ask us if we voted or not?

From the kind of support that AH got from the urban middle-class, I can only conclude that there is a huge disdain for politicians. It’s always been there, but it’s never manifested itself so clearly. People hate politicians of all parties. They could be MPs or MLAs or municipal corporators or even village panchayat members. They could be Lok Sabha members or Rajya Sabha. They hate them for corruption; nepotism; poverty; and everything under the sun. If the middle class has so much angst inside them against politicians, then why doesn’t it come out and express itself during the elections? Does the middle class believe that its numbers are so small that their votes won’t count in any case (in which case, they should ask themselves if their support for AH really represents the majority view)? Or do they believe that since all politicians are equally bad, where is the choice really? Are these real issues, or are they just excuses for excusing ones personal irresponsibility?

It’s important for us as a society to answer these questions. Because the process of elections and voting is the very foundation of a democratic system. If all of us feel this way, then what we are basically saying is that we are disenchanted with democracy. If we are disenchanted with our politicians, we are disenchanted with democracy itself. It would be extremely unfashionable for us to admit to this, but we do leave a trail here and there which indicates that in reality, maybe we prefer a slightly more totalitarian system. We rave about China......and its ability to execute projects at superfast speeds. We are appreciative of the US in spite of its very bully-like attitude around the world. Even in the stock markets, we give a huge thumbs-up to an economic bully like Mukesh Ambani, making RIL the most valuable company in the country. We are aware of the many ills that accompany these names, but we seem to be ok with them. We ignore the humanitarian violations in China, the failure of its banking and legal systems, and its overt exertion of military pressure on its neighbors. We ignore the double-barreled commando-like conduct of the US government internationally (including on institutions like the UN) and we ignore the brazen “up-yours” attitude that an Ambani often shows to the authorities. So somewhere inside of us, we yearn for a utopic world ruled by a strong but benevolent-to-us ruler. Somewhere inside of us, we are starting to give up on democracy itself.

Most of the criticism to my position on AH has been that the politicians themselves are responsible for this agitation. They asked for it to happen. They did nothing to clean up the system on their own. They are corrupt. They deserved to be targeted. Very few have disagreed with my views on the proposed Jan Lokpal bill itself. Its various flaws. People have said “of course it has flaws, but without AH, nothing would have happened”. Bang on. Without AH, nothing would indeed have happened. But who’s responsible for this state of affairs?

It’s time for us to look inwards. It’s time for us to make up our minds whether we want and value our democracy or not. Many in the younger generation (and I still include myself in it!) have not personally seen the downsides of a totalitarian regime. The closest we came to it was during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency period in 1973. There are a few romanticists who still talk about how emergency brought efficiency to the government machinery. However, it also put strict restrictions on public indiscipline. In reality, this totalitarian power reduced even further any semblance of accountability to the people. Eventually, it made her despotic and the people voted her out in the elections that followed. Even then, it was the process of voting that rid the country of this huge blot. Democracy give us many wonderful fruits to enjoy; but it also demands that we do our bit in making it sustain.

I have voted and I can assure everyone that the process is a highly efficient one. It takes about 30 minutes (lesser in Bandra!). The electronic voting system has made it rather foolproof (some will complain all the time). Trust me, there is not much “stuffing” of ballot boxes any more. Yes, people still vote on false names.....but that alone is a relatively small % of overall votes. In the last elections in 2008, there was also a bit of a glam value associated with showing the black mark on the finger. In fact, it would be so much better to show the black mark on the finger rather than the finger itself!

The real truth is that AH’s movement is as much a criticism of us arm-chair critics as it is about the politicians. If we had been more responsible, change would have come many decades back. Today, it’s taken AH to attempt a clean-up and remind us about our failings. We may point fingers at others; but the truth is that the fingers are equally pointing at us.....


  1. Do appreciate the points raised Prashant and its a fact. This was poised to happen someday, delayed but it has happened now. I am sure the scams have been happening since independence, may be the magnitude was less, economic gates were closed for foreign investors hence opportunity to get corrupt were less, media was not so strong in Doordarshan era hence the noise level were too less to be heard. Some thanks to RTI and some to Dr Manmohan Singh/Sonia Gandhi's image, things are becoming more transparent. Am sure of one thing, if A Raja was an ally of BJP or any other party, he wouldn't have been prosecuted or kalmadi wouldn't have faced the music he is facing now. I would like to believe that both PM & SG should be happy inside with whatever is happening on A Raja or AH case. What they have not been able to achieve due to the compulsions of Coalition, have been achieved to some extent by circumstances. To what extent we deserve democracy is a big point of debate, Anybody can get together and stop trains/block roads/stone public property and these are those guys who may not have paid any kind of taxes. I get a sense of relief (may be temporary, though hope its not) and pray that we need to carry on this kind of disagreement with the government and ensure its execution in positive manner.

  2. Ahem, i don't really know where to start, but I disagree with many points,while I also do agree in general with some. So let me dissect your post point by point.

    First of all, the methods used by Anna Hazare were absolutely 1.democratic and 2. persuasive and not coercive. The media is obviously lying that it is not so. The India against Corruption group has been trying for a long time (I had found their site myself several months back) to contact the ministers and arrange a meeting with them, but to no avail. Petitions were ignored. So, I couldn't disagree more with you regarding the method of Anna Hazare's protest. However, it is definitely true that the middle class are to be blamed. But, they are not to be blamed for not voting (I will explain later why). They are to be blamed for being so pro-capitalistic - of which the higher middle class to rich class people are beneficiaries.

    "Does the middle class believe that its numbers are so small that their votes won’t count in any case (in which case, they should ask themselves if their support for AH really represents the majority view)? "

    This could well be true. You yourself have sort of answered the question as to why this attitude is prevalent - the general lack of trust among people towards politicians. Yes, it is true that "we" elect the politicians but it is the system (the political-corporate-bureaucrat-rich citizens nexus) that has become so complex and hard to penetrate that the true meaning of democracy is lost. Elections form only a thin slice of the concept of democracy. Democracy also means that the people's will and the people's welfare will be considered in the governance, which is the reason why the elections occur in the first place. But, needless to say, that has STOPPED occuring. So, in that, the people cannot be blamed for losing trust and faith on both the system as well as the politicians. However, only a small group of enlightened, reasonably empowered, well-intentioned people can achieve the task of bringing about checks and balances in the system to get rid of corruption and hence revivie public faith. The efforts for the Lokpal is one such effort.

    The part "they should ask themselves if their support for AH really represents the majority view" is totally laughable. Of course it represents the majority view. Especially because we all know that poor people are the majority in this nation and corruption affects the POOR the MOST. The LOCAL MEDIA in states have to be blamed for not making the people in rural areas aware of the movement.

    I fully agree with the part in which you talked about US and UN and the general public view regarding them. When I say public though, you are referring to educated middle class only. But somehow, that is a little immaterial to the Lokpal movement. That, as i explained, elsewhere, has got to do with the lack of Socialist or leftist ideals, which are the only truly virtuous and "inclusive" ideologies.
    But Lokpal or a similar anti-corruption watch-dog (that performs its duty) will benefit the poor DEFINITELY, no questions asked.

    "Very few have disagreed with my views on the proposed Jan Lokpal bill itself."

    That is because they haven't read the Lokpal bill, or they are sycophants. I am sorry but that is the truth. Your views on the Lokpal (so far) hold no water.

    Finally, given that the present political system is inadequate (to weed out corruption) and also the people present in it are already corrupt, the only remedy is to have an independent ombudsman or lokpal. And oh yeah, whats the point of voting? Who should we vote for?

  3. nicely put....appreciate ur words!