Amitabh shows his middle finger to the nation. Dhoni shows his middle finger to Amitabh. And urban India shows its middle finger to participatory democracy by rocking the vote with abysmal attendance. (Bombay does 43%, Bangalore does 46%, Lucknow does 35% [link])
While there are some arguments (a collection of them here)why this number is deflated (the actual proportion of people voting is claimed to be higher), this is still a rather abysmal. As an aside, if we had the figures, you would probably find that the proportion of people with high-school degrees who voted in urban areas would be much much lesser than even the 40%]
The real reason most educated urbanites are reluctant to vote is , I believe, it takes way too much effort to get out of bed and stand in a long line on a hot day. Having spent much of one’s adult life standing in various sorts of queues— electric bill, motor vehicles, LPG—this is one queue where one’s presence is optional. Hence it is avoided.
I do not know how the situation is in other cities. But growing up in Kolkata, the CPM as part of its “scientific rigging” would intentionally play on people’s “lyadh” (Bengali for ennui) and seek to dissuade them from voting through various techniques all which worked on somehow making the bhodrolok’s patience snap. People would be made to stand in the blazing sun and the lines would be “stuffed” by fake voters whose role was to make the queue longer than it was. And when these fake voters would be challenged, more time would be lost in the resolution of these challenges in the process making the bhodrolok even more impatient at which point of time he would say “Durr…..I am outta here”. Of course in Calcutta this would not bring down the polling per-cent as for every person who went back to his Rui maacher lunch, the “party zombies” would quietly slip in and cast his vote. [The per-centage voting in Calcutta is always high and that is because dead people, imaginary people and the same people all vote.]
Of course lethargy is never the official reason for “not voting”. A majority would give the logic as “All the candidates are equally bad.” While this is of course true, it still is an excuse. There is always a choice. There is always a candidate who is slightly less worse than the others. Again not in absolute terms but comparatively.
The problem is we as educated urbanites , and this I am sad to say is a problem which afflicts the less-than-35s even more, are not prepared to invest the time and the effort to do the background work needed to make a choice. Instead there is the intellectually lazy catch-all “I hate all of them” which, sorry to say, is a cop-out.
For instance, if I had been present in Kolkata, I would have been presented with a choice between “Didi” and some CPM stooge (these are the two who have any chance of winning Calcutta South). Now frankly this is like a choice between Agarkar and McCullum on current form and a “I will stay home” seems to be an attractive course of action. However I would tell myself this (keeping it very very simple because I am lazy myself): In as much as I detest Mamata and what she has done for my state, a vote for CPM at the center (this “at the center” is very important) means either of two things. 1) A vote for a Third front Prime Minister like Mayawati or Karat and 2) An unstable coalition partner who would be trying to paralyze the government at every opportunity, to the detriment of the national interest. In this context, my choice becomes clear even though it is a most disquieting decision.
In contrast to urban India, rural areas have and will keep showing a high voter turn-out. First of all, the average life of the villager is much harsher than that of the city-dweller which is why standing in line isn’t that big a deal to him. Secondly a villager, more in need of basic necessities than the “city mouse” is far more dependent on the government and so by extension on his elected representative. With primary demands like power, water and a school, electing the “right guy” is much more important to the villager than it is for the urban elite who always considers himself to be surviving “despite” the system and not because of it. Most of the time in rural India, the “right guy” is simply the caste brother/sister. The strong caste loyalty, accompanied by the associated expectation of hand-me-downs to caste-mates, makes the emotional connect with the candidate so high that people will do whatever it takes to get his/her vote in. And when the caste brotherhood does not exist (you do need the votes of the opposing caste also) or needs to be “supplemented”, the connect is made through fear of the candidate (If I don’t see your sorry ass at the polling station, you know what’s coming) or small tokens of gratitude (a hundred rupee note or a bottle of country liquor or a blanket).
In the more detached and impersonal urban environment, the candidate is hardly ever worth the effort of voting. (Political parties sometimes try to create this emotional connect with the candidate in urban areas by nominating film-stars, which is something they reason that people in cities do care for.)
Even in urban areas, the poorer sections like migrant labor or slum-dwellers, are far more organized and successful in identifying their “issues” principally because their issues are more well-defined, simpler and more easily pandered to (legalization of their encroachment on private/government land and the continued availability of free amenities for example) than those of the educated elites (typically vague and “unrealizable” things like honesty, security,accountability).
Vimal-da (current MP): ” I negotiated with the police when they came to arrest the president of Four Friends Boys Club. For what did the cops come? Because he was merely collecting subscriptions in a persuasive way from those big building dwellers. Did Nantoo-da come to help you boys then? No he was not even here in the constituency [Applause].”
Nantoo-da (prospective MP): “Last time you did not vote for me. Look at what happened. The Electric Company came here and cut off your power. Do you know why? Because your present MP, Vimal “Dada” is in the pocket of the Electric Company. I say the “people” have right to free power. [Applause]. This is not stealing. These are your rights [Applause] Vote for me this time and I will hold my ears in front of all of you if any ****** from the Power Company dare enters this colony. [Thunderous Applause]”
Thus the poorer sections of the urban population have consistently exhibited a better understanding of realpolitik and the actual way Indian democracy works. In response to this however, the urban elite petulantly sulks in the corner saying “Our votes do not count. The politician knows he will get the votes of the slum-dwellers. They do not even bother canvassing in our areas.” Of course he does not. He knows that it is not worth his while to appeal to a group who in any case are not going to vote.
Coming back to the present election, what has amused me is the “we-never-saw-that-coming” surprise at the low voter-turnout this year, an outrage that has found a lot of expression in the media. How could this happen after the public outpouring of awareness after 26/11? What happened to the “No More?” What happened to the “Be the Change”? What happened to the josh of urban youth which manifested itself through candle-light vigils, forwarded email petitions and SMS campaigns? Was this all a “false dawn” of “Jag Utha Youngistan”?
I dont know about you but I am not surprised at all. I am not surprised that urban security, which was such a hot-button topic not more than 6 months ago, did not become a galvanizing issue, strong enough to bring people in front of the booth. This is because pulp activism, the kind of which we saw after 26/11, is never sustainable.”Real” change never comes from the kind of retributive violence glorified as the “change” in Rang De Basanti or the kind of touchy-feely Gandhian wish-wash of “Munnabhai”. Fantasy films are all right but then people expect real problems to be solved as beautifully and as quickly. When that does not happen in real life, there is disappointment and a corresponding detachment from the process.
The fact remains that real change and true political awareness comes from education and from reflection, both of which takes time and effort. Now where do urban youth have the time in between Roadies, Mumbai Indians vs Deccan Chargers, Saregama, Om Shanti Om, Iron Maiden concerts, trance parties and “chillin with ma peeps”?And how will people be aware of what the issues are when they open Page 3 first and then move on to the Movie pages?
If any further proof is needed as to how little the urban educated care for politics, look at how feeble the market demand is for serious discussions on the topic. A casual surf through the television channels, even the news ones, convinces me of the fact. Most of the “political” programming that I see are usually very perfunctory, either pandering to pulp activism (“Politicians have let the country down” Text 01 if you agree and Text 02 if you do not) or just mere hot air where an anchor shouts down three or four babbling spokesmen and a few representatives from a mostly clueless studio audience. And this too happens when a ticker runs at the bottom informing us that Aamir Khan just informed the nation that he has a dog named Shahrukh.
So what is the solution? Making voting compulsory, a supremely totalitarian solution to promote democracy (oh what irony), is definitely not the answer. [The proposed measure has that Rang De Basanti-type instant-effect, Maggi-two-minute flavor to it, which is why it is all wrong]. The solution to this problem I gather, like solutions to all the big problems, will be arrived through slow and evolutionary processes and will necessarily involve education, awareness and a hopeful change of mindset wherein the urbanites realize that when one decides to stay at home and show the middle finger to the democratic process, the process flips the bird back at you.
With double the vengeance.