Elections Interrupted – II : The Impact of Proximity

This post flows from the previous one and focuses on the following question.

“How significant is ‘Proximity’, in terms of immediate issues that drive ‘voting patterns’ for a majority of the electorate and to what degree are these at odds with the social values – ethical and moral, that the author of the piece ‘http://qz.com/178362/india-crosses-the-moral-line-of-no-return-if-narendra-modi-becomes-prime-minister/‘ refers to?”

In the first part, I argue that the ‘moral line’ Thane refers to was traversed maybe years ago. India has been a victim of ongoing pogroms against its marginalized for decades now, and that sporadic incidents are but periodic aberrations that spike this steady onslaught on the moral fabric of its society. But what does ‘crossing a moral line’ mean, in the context of the electorate’s voting patterns? This post is my take on the issues that shape people’s choices come ballot time.

UntitledPicture Courtesy: http://www.cartoonstock.com



The social values that Thane refers to form an essential part of an individual’s community needs, depicted by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, (refer Picture 1. below). You can read more at: http://www.consciousaging.com/Transpersonal%20Psychology/Conscious%20Aging%20-%20Maslow%27s%20Hierarchy%20of%20Needs.aspx. The bottom two rungs of the pyramid are the absolute basic necessities required to live a healthy life. Belonging and Esteem are the next two steps in the hierarchy, when the individual forms social bonds in order to enhance his acceptance within society, ultimately leaving him and his near ones more secure and satisfied. The top rung is self-explanatory, free from the struggles of everyday physiological needs and basic security, but an essential component nevertheless, contributing attributes and goods that strengthen the social glue. They represent the opportunity that capitalism promises to every individual, offered with an unsaid reciprocal obligation towards society.

Untitled1Figure 1: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (http://changingminds.org/explanations/needs/maslow.htm)


While social/community relationships may not form ‘essential and necessary’ conditions in satisfying physiological and safety needs (as in the case of communist societies), these are crucial facilitators in societies like India where limited government involvement combined with social-sector initiatives have contributed towards social welfare. For instance, India’s joint family concept, extending to the patriarchal influence of the proximate community within the village/town structure has traditionally partnered with the government welfare programs – at various hierarchical levels (Village, District and State), culminating in what can be termed as a comprehensive National social program.


Lately, while government involvement in welfare programs has been on the decline (a ‘gradual’ therapy, if you may), the portion that still remains directed towards social welfare is by far ineffective (graft and incompetence combined), thanks to institutionalised malpractices, prevalent since independence but honed to perfection over the years. Criticism heaped at the implementation of the Mid-day meal scheme in schools or the questionable benefits of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme are just a couple of examples illustrating this decline.

To add to this phenomenon, disruptive influences pertaining to rural-urban migration, gender issues, nuclearisation of the joint family, quality of education, availability of basic health-care, etc. continue to challenge the social order, in the face of an unyielding patriarchal hierarchy within proximate ‘communities’. A backlash to this can be seen in the form of increasing number of honour killings, violence against women, farmer suicides, unemployability of the diaspora (in spite of the proliferation of degree-donors – the dubious quality centres of learning), urban crime and persistently disappointing mortality (infant, female) figures, amongst other factors. The exceptionally high frequency of heinous crimes against women signifies the fact that we’re dealing with widespread disregard of the law, (leave aside common civility) in major parts of the country.

This gradual severing of the social cord in a country that has traditionally relied on community-led balancing influences is forcing a desperate struggle to grab the benefits of the bottom two rungs of the Maslow ladder, threatening the demographic dividend that the country’s leaders talk optimistically about. These, in my opinion, are the ‘proximate’ values that determine voting priorities for a majority of the electorate. Thane’s concern about the electorate’s disregard for essential humanity needs to be reconciled with this lowest common denominator that continues to rankle the bottom rung of the Maslow ladder.

Modi’s statement about his preference for ‘Toilets over Temples’ is quite significant in this regard. A lack of adequate and appropriate hygiene facilities may be a factor in explaining the prevalence of sexual crime against women. During a conversation with a close friend who had worked in Haiti during the post-earthquake period, it emerged that lack of illumination (electricity) around toilets was a major factor in the prevalence of sexual crimes against women. Once adequate lighting was provided, the frequency of crime came down dramatically. ‘Lighting’ as an important factor in human security was also amplified during the ‘Nirbhaya’ tragedy in Delhi. Modi’s statement on toilets also gives perspective to the magnitude of the problem. ‘Ram Temple’ and ‘India Shining’ don’t hold a candle to the issue of providing basic sanitation – among the most important needs of the other 99%.

With only the ‘vote’ as their bargaining chip, it is easy to imagine the extent of the voters’ faith in the electoral exercise, especially when one places into perspective their disappointing experience with electoral politics over the decades. Thane needs to understand the average citizen’s disillusion with the vote in terms of the larger social reality of India. To simply put down voter attitudes to ‘promise of prosperity’ and a ‘race towards higher GDP’ is a simplistic supposition, largely derived from popular media, political propaganda and the interests of the other 1%, who are at best fringe elements in the social diaspora.

Untitled2Picture Courtesy: http://www.cartoonstock.com


Coming back to the cited article, Thane, in his first paragraph, refers to a lady, whose background and seeming nonchalance should place her among the top 1% of the Indian electorate, light years away from the rest. As growing disparity continues to divide the masses from the elite, shared social spaces begin to contract. Call it safety concerns, divergent interests or time constraints, there’s little to draw the country together as a social whole. India’s penchant for status/class/projection makes it unfashionable to be too proximate the rest, most of the times, and this has an adverse effect on social order. For instance, as long as the 1% stay away from public transport or government/public schools, one cannot expect a massive improvement in the quality of services these provide, utility-wise or security-wise.

In all fairness to the Maslow logic, the top 1% is also populated by other elements that contribute their intellectual and financial capital in interest of the community, which gradually transfer social goods down the ladder. In fact, the potential effectiveness of the 1% as a catalyst of social action is not limited, by any stretch of imagination. 26/11 is a case in point. The direct attack on the 1% within their everyday environment was the trigger that brought the entire country on its feet. These are positive social actions that can bridge the divide between the haves and the have-nots by addressing deficiencies in the macro social structure. But, are periodic catastrophes in urban areas the only ways to ensure positive social interaction? That is the question.

In terms of ‘proximity’ shaping the top 1%, safety and physiological needs, ever paramount, are met through personal traits – while community-based social attributes are only sought as aberrations, permitting a degree of non-concern for the social fabric across the various sections of society. This is a routine feature of India and also explains to an extent the lack of civic sense prevalent among Indians in general (at least while they’re within the ‘tolerant’ borders of the country).

I am not ashamed to admit that beyond my chosen profession (which pays me decently for my services), I too have narrow interests towards society, restricted to bettering the lives of the few people that play peripheral parts in my life and occasional contributions towards a few philanthropic causes. In fact, I am not that different from Thane’s lady – well, I don’t go about making remarks like her, but nonetheless, I largely remain a silent spectator.


Modi’s pitch for ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’ implies the sad state of affairs that has been the norm so far. This top-heavy structure has been largely responsible for the paralysis and vacuum that we associate with so many areas of Indian policy making. The surrender of ‘public interest’ for vested interests, prevalent since the early days of independence has only become refined over time (adequate reference to this has been made by the erstwhile Coal Secretary, Mr. PC Parakh, in the book “Crusader or Conspirator”). This has proliferated into different sectors of government policy-making, and has in the process ensnared all and sundry associated with governance. Over a period of time, such institutionalisation has eroded the integrity of our judicial, law enforcement and regulatory bodies, thanks to manipulation by the powers that be. The previous post’s reference to ‘criminals’ in the polity indicates clearly the steady inroads made by criminals into the political arena. The blatant extent to which the polity has manipulated the system can be observed by the way the Union Cabinet, in Sep 2013, overturned a Supreme Court of India judgment stating that “… an MP or MLA would be immediately disqualified if convicted by a court in a criminal offence with a jail sentence of two years or more.” (http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/cabinet-overrules-supreme-court-clears-ordinance-to-protect-convicted-mps/1173585/).

India is fast turning into a lawless society because of political, bureaucratic and judicial corruption. With senior civil servants crying hoarse over the quality of governance and corruption, even within their own ranks (as Mr. PC Parakh does in his account), it is not difficult to visualize the influence of these developments on the voting patterns of the electorate. The moral line that Thane talks of, regardingwhat is acceptable in a politician’ needs to be studied with this background in mind. The ‘vote’ no longer commands the power and respect that it traditionally stood for. This dilution of standards over a period of time by a polity bent on subverting due process is of greater immediate concern. While I doubt the emergence of a Hitler in India, given the ocean of difference in the cultural and social norms between the two countries, a new type of ‘Chimera’ raising its head cannot be ruled out.


The polity’s unabashed behavior is made possible by the growing fissures in society between the haves and the have-nots. In fact, to an extent, the polity may even be responsible for sowing some of these seeds of discord/nonchalance. Take the following case for example.

The governing class has never bothered to provide India’s Defence services assured suffrage over the years. By this I refer to the inability of the government to facilitate an easy/convenient process through which members of the Indian Defence Forces can cast vote come Election Day. Not only is the Indian military amongst the largest in the world, but it also is a vital stakeholder in the security and integrity of India. Most importantly, though, it is staffed with motivated and intelligent individuals who enjoy high trustworthiness of the nation’s citizens, a rare and exceptional privilege not usually associated with the other structures of the state. The resignation of the Indian Naval chief a couple of months ago over a spate of accidents (amidst a political culture where such instances have an ET-like aura) lends credibility to this argument. As vital tax-paying stakeholders in India’s future, what is being suggested is simply a system of ensuring their participation in the electoral process, adequate opportunity is available for them to caste vote, with due consideration to their restrictions in terms of connectivity and time. Unfortunately, in the absence of such a process, the uniformed few are resigned to the misplaced perception that their duty to the nation doesn’t require meaningful involvement in the nation’s problems, beyond those pertaining to the written charter. This enforces a sense of entitlement and elitism, contributing to their lack of concern for societal problems. This is not an attempt at rationalization, merely an observation. I’m sure other factors are also at play here.


What is important is that due to conflicts of interests at various levels of the electorate, it is not pragmatic to expect people to ‘rationally’ evaluate options and voting choices as Thane describes. Unless there exists common social cause as a matter of fact, and not purely as a matter of vested interests, the ‘desperation – intolerance – frustration’ cycles is likely to play out with increasing frequency and brutality at the lower levels in response to the insensitivity-apathy led disconnect at the other end of the spectrum.

This marginalization of the electorate over the decades by the polity is one of the major factors responsible for the eroding social values-based system found in present day India. Under these circumstances, I believe it is way optimistic to expect the voter to relinquish his ‘proximate’ concerns in favour of the bigger picture. Rather than blaming society for its apathy towards the odious episode in Gujarat, adequate focus needs to be paid in ensuring that the political aspirations of the people’s representatives remain in line with the requirements of the electorate. In order to ensure this, adequate regulatory mechanisms need to be ‘implemented and enforced’ to examine the polity’s culpability towards social malaise that is rapidly overwhelming the citizens’ ability to cope. Unless mechanisms for accountability are instituted, errors of omission will continue to conveniently brush social maladies under the carpet.

Where all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing” – Hannah Arendt.

With the knowledge that short-term survival remains the proximate concern of the majority of the electorate, in a social environment shaped by forces beyond their control, the last part of this three-part series will examine the major strategic considerations that go into formulating election strategies by the political parties in fray and the role that social values play in these?

In Lak’ech.