ElectionsInterrupted – I : Electorally Dumb or Socially Numb ?

The election frenzy is over and we’re finally permitted glimpses of the world beyond. As sweeping as the results were, significant events did occur elsewhere. But I guess proximity matters, considering how elaborately cloistered our lives have become. Even so, there are issues like the ones i discuss in this post that are equally relevant to everyone who inhabits this planet, however removed the individual may perceive himself to be.

This post aims to address a critical issue highlighted by a dear friend, Jillaine, through the following piece (http://qz.com/178362/india-crosses-the-moral-line-of-no-return-if-narendra-modi-becomes-prime-minister/) The author makes valid arguments. Like the lady he refers to, I too count myself (although consciously, I may add) among the minority – the top 1% of the electorate shielded from the everyday physiological and security struggles waged by the rest. But then I was also afforded the opportunity to comprehend the struggles of the other 99%, thanks to the nature of my profession as well as my interaction with those around me who have largely been the less fortunate ones.

I would like to add here, that while my perspective of things may appear to be grim I’m only writing about social values-based activism related to mainstream political action. The fact that India continues to be a land of hope for a billion, and that it has tolerated the divisive nature of politics bears testimony to the faith of its people in the ideal of democracy and the semblance of rationality that India’s laudable civil-society, some dedicated bureaucrats, a few clean politicians and certain sections of media have contributed towards social awareness and welfare. The Aam Aadmi phenomenon, the meteoric rise followed by a slow and steady deflation, is one such constructive social development that keeps one’s spirits high. Irrespective of their naiveté, these folks breached a frontier that made people sit up and take notice, the mainstream parties included.

With this background, I choose to divide my take on Thane’s article into three parts, each question flowing to the subsequent point, to be probed in succeeding posts.

 

1. Does Modi’s victory signify a ‘water-shed’ in terms of our ‘numbing’ as an electorate?

2. 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 that the author stresses – ethics and morals? Maslow revisited.

3. What are the major strategic considerations that go into formulating election strategies by the political parties in fray and what role do social values play in these?

 

The subject of this post is the first issue raised above. I am in disagreement with the author’s view on India ‘crossing the moral line’ now that Modi has become the Prime Minister. This is not a justification for Modi’s alleged actions or omissions, but an attempt to highlight the pervasive exploitation of a significant proportion of Indian society which, in my opinion is the major contributor to the social numbing that we continue to witness everyday (beyond the sporadic bouts of violence that capture popular imagination). I think we have crossed the ‘moral line’ some years, or maybe decades ago, but only now are we witnessing its fallout on our social fabric on such a mammoth scale, as the “frustration-intolerance-desperation” cycle driven by political insensitivity moves into high gear, with social media/networking providing greater visibility.

While ‘mass-executions/ethnic cleansing’ remain peripheral catastrophes waiting to pounce on a society, India’s socioeconomic complexities and complicated social equations also make it a home to many ongoing ‘pogroms’ (decades old if not more) that hide silently within the blanket of anonymity that the country offers – its vast size, its rigid class/caste divides and the mayhem concealed within the never-ending struggle to access basic physiological and security needs. These endemic and systemic pogroms have been severing social bonds for generations – voiceless and hidden, but never ceasing. 1984, 1991 and 2002 are three ‘isolated’ incidents that form part of a generations-old systemic campaign of exploitation of the marginalized masses. Mass migrations (rural to urban) and demographic changes are exacerbating these effects further. Eroding community values like those Thane (the author of the piece) describes – morals, ethics and civic sense, though laudable, need to be reconciled with these realities. India is simply too vast and its problems too endemic to permit society to rally consistently behind these ideals – periodic demonstrations do occur, but these are usually in retaliation to gross violations of the most basic of human rights. I’ve chosen to write about a couple of such problems, a recent one from the state of Uttar Pradesh (thanks to the glaring media attention it has received), and an ongoing issue affecting a sizable portion of the country since the late 1960s, remains conveniently hidden from popular discussion.

 

CASE 1: GOVERNANCE GONE TO THE DOGS

The electorally attractive state of Uttar Pradesh (population-wise it equals Brazil, and is responsible for 80 out of the possible 542 lower assembly seats in the Indian Parliament), recently witnessed a series of heinous crimes against women. In the first case, two women were raped and hanged on a tree, in full public view, just a few days ago. The case is strikingly similar to the one that has repeatedly come to the forefront over the years – low caste victims, higher caster perpetrators and apathy by the police and other administrators. The theme is eerily similar to the one in Mississippi Burning, but with a far more divisive character and abetted by the pervasive culture of caste-politics. It is evident to me that we’re no longer seeing communal divides play out on ‘historical’ and ‘traditional’ lines. We’re witnessing the arrogance of power, through state-condoned lawlessness that has permeated all boundaries of religion, caste and sub-caste (and other invented social divisions that I’m sure have taken shape). This case was followed by another shocking crime, perpetrated against a female Judge. She was gang-raped at her official residence before being left to die. When the upholders of law (the elite) can expect no safety in this country, the situation for the other 99% remains grim indeed. They are likely to continue to face the brunt of pogroms, leaving the electorate marginalized and divided, thanks to the fear psychosis such a situation stokes.

Uttar Pradesh, popularly called UP, seems like ‘Godfather’ territory, without the suits and the ‘Brando’ drawl. The shenanigans of the ruling ‘Yadav’ family do seem to validate this, considering their dynastic control over state politics. And it doesn’t end with UP. Its Chief Minister, under media scanner, was kind enough to highlight to the citizens of India that his state should not be singled out when similar barbarism was rampant in others – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and so on. Absolute control made possible by dynastic entrenchment, with no larger agenda than to amass power, is largely to blame for such rampant lawlessness and apathy in many regions of the country.

 

CASE II: ETHNIC CLEANSING VERSUS SYSTEMIC ETHNIC EXPLOITATION

ImageFigure 1– Indian Naxal Affected Districts: 2007

     (Picture Courtesy: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/76/India_Naxal_affected_districts_map.svg)

      As horrific as the above examples were, sparing life in order to shackle generations into destitution is no lesser crime. I’m talking about the ‘systemic ethnic exploitation’ that continues in India’s Naxalite corridor (refer Figure 1). In April 2006, the Indian Prime Minister declared the Naxalite issue as the main internal threat to the integrity of India, calling for a combination of law enforcement measures and socio-economic development initiatives to tackle it. As the graphics below depict (refer Figure 2), as far as election outcomes go, the PM’s diktat hasn’t produced any discernible changes. In spite of the encouraging official figures, these non-trends are disturbing. In 1984, the Congress Party was in majority (BJP was non-existent) across vast swathes of the country….30 years later BJP enjoys similar spoils (Congress Party being reduced to a never-before tally).

 

ImageFigure 2 – Electoral outcomes in the Red Corridor of India over the decades

(Picture Courtesy: http://gkdutta.wordpress.com/2014/05/17/result-of-indian-general-election-of-2014-was-held-to-constitute-the-16th-lok-sabha/)

     It is striking to note (please excuse the difference in the ‘legend’ descriptions – the left one denotes constituencies as ‘dots’ while the one to the right denotes the same as ‘geographically shaded’ portions) that while blue has largely given way to saffron, the Eastern regions stretching from the South to the state of West Bengal continue to remain out of the ambit of the main ‘national’ political parties of India, almost ignored. The election results show how wide spread and historic the Naxalite problem is and the scant regard that major political parties of India have shown to the affected region over the decades. Beyond regional calculations and political alliances that have sprung up over the years, the absence of these mainstream political parties raises a big question mark about their commitment to the social welfare of the country as a whole. That this symbolizes the disillusion of the constituents of the affected districts is not lost on the mind. What is striking, though, is the continued disinterest of the country’s leaders to rectify this situation over the years, in spite of the periodic publicity the problem has received.

Eight years in power and a Prime Minister’s personal commitment to the Naxalite corridor was not enough to prevent a leader from his own party, the Congress party from being assassinated in the Naxalite belt during 2013. One reason could be that, discerning the effectiveness of law enforcement operations remains subjective at best (considering the cyclical nature of naxalite violence – the present phase is said to be led by the 3rd generation of fighters, post 1967). While the official government website has revised downward the number representing the Naxalite-affected districts from 183 to 33 over the past 08 years, the reliability of this data is very much in doubt. According to a report (http://www.janes.com/article/35219/naxalite-attack-in-chhattisgarh-highlights-terrorism-risk-in-india-s-red-corridor-ahead-of-april-general-election), the district of Sukma in the state of Chattisgarh (part of the Naxalite corridor), which was the site of the assassination of the Congress Party leader described above, still continues to witness Naxal violence. Surprisingly, it doesn’t find a mention on the government website listing Naxal affected districts: http://tribal.nic.in/Content/ListofnaxalaffecteddistrictsasidentifiedEducation.aspx

On the socioeconomic front, if the PM’s 2006 directive had been taken seriously, one would have expected the takeaways to percolate on to the electoral result sheets. As the above figure indicates, this has not been happening for decades now. The affected population’s disillusion with/ignorance about the whole concept of democratic governance and the election process is evident from the following examples.

1.     An excerpt from the Business Standard (Elections in the shadow of guns, 08 Apr 2014): “In the last election, supporters of a candidate took many villagers away and made them drink all night. They were repeatedly shown talaa and chabbi (lock and key) – the candidate’s election symbol. Next morning, they went to the booth dancing and singing talaa, chabbi, talaa, chabbi and pressed the ballot button,” recounts Anil Kakreti of Karma village.

2.     Echoing the irrelevance that polls have traditionally held in these areas, a colleague of mine, who hails from the corridor, explained in a matter-of-fact way that entire villages still cast their vote in favour of Indira Gandhi, believing her to be still alive and running the country from New Delhi. Talking about numbing, these folks have been in ‘comfortably numb’ territory for a while now. WAIT !! Is it really them, or could it be us who’ve receded into this ‘numbness’, indifferent to their plight. Floyd sheds the light, once again (http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/pinkfloyd/comfortablynumb.html)!

I personally consider this ongoing issue to be an elaborate pogrom that started off marginalizing the people of the region and has ended up exploiting them, supported by the government, by the anti-government forces as well as the local mafia (land mafia, timber mafia, mining mafia, etc.) that links these forces to the people, their land and their resources. (An official view: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Naxalism-A-Rs-1500-crore-red-corridor-empire/articleshow/4628045.cms). While I do believe the Naxalites to be an anti-social force and their violent cause harmful to the unity and integrity of India, the government’s apathy towards this half-century old problem reeks of the customary “sins of omission” that the governing classes are so often accused of.

Beyond the mishandling of such core issues, the obfuscation of social data, in terms of accurate assessments (as described using the ‘Sukma’ example above) or in the perceived inability to undertake a definitive census on literacy and poverty exposes the ‘hollowness’ in our political convictions that reverberates even beyond the borders of India. It is not surprising that apart from Bhutan, no other neighbor enjoying an ‘evergreen’ relationship with India, not even Bangladesh, for whose liberation India fought a war in 1971. Can we really expect the world to treat us any better, I wonder?

SUMMARY

“Roti, Kapda, Makaan” translated roughly as “Food, clothing, Shelter” started off as a rallying cry in order to rid the country of its basic deficiencies, but IT continues to remain a distant dream to a sizable proportion of the electorate. I think we’re looking at a deeper political malaise that extends beyond Modi and points a finger at all mainstream political parties, who have all been named and shamed at one point or the other, in our post-independence period.

While I consider myself to be an optimist, I wonder what we can realistically expect from our chosen political leaders. For all the optimism that the electoral outcome has generated, this crisis in leadership becomes evident when one attempts to interpret the financial records and criminal histories/backgrounds of the winning candidates (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_general_election,_2014 scroll down to the end, please). With 1/3rd of the winning candidates (185/542) in the largest democracy in the world having criminal cases against them – with 1/5th of the total belonging to the ‘serious’ criminal cases category, one can’t but feel distraught about this deficit in Indian politics. Other links that you may find of interest include:

1. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/02/fifth-india-election-candidate-face-criminal-charges)

2. (http://www.hindustantimes.com/elections2014/election2014-placeholder/maximum-women-mps-ever-in-ls/article1-1220549.aspx)

In my opinion, this muddying of our political processes has incentivized the ‘desperation – frustration – intolerance’ related misdemeanors in society. While statesmen no longer populate the political spectrum of the country, the best one can expect is for an elected leader to develop a few vital qualities once in power. Manmohan Singh deeply disappointed the electorate with his inactions, in spite of his credentials and the potential that he exhibited during his first term in office. With the Sonia-Manmohan ‘dirty dancing’ tango creating a political vacuum after 10 years in power, the electorate was left with very few options.

Come election time, it is the daily struggle that forces society to focus largely on proximate issues, at the cost of other vital issues of national concern. After all, the balanced and philosophical approach that would enable an alignment with Thane’s arguments demands a sufficiency of time, knowledge, etc., restricting its reach to a privileged few. Comprehending these voting patterns and the political parties’ resulting strategies requires some dwell-time on the disconnect between the proximal and the long-term. Interpreting this will form the subject of my next post.

Note: My observations and opinions have been formulated over a period of time from various events, diverse interactions and a rich horde of reading material, stretching across the political divide. However, proximate events do tend to create a bias within one’s mind that shapes thoughts and gives a partisan flavor to ideas. Search for unbiased evidence does sometimes clash with an instinctive resort to vindication, and I do suffer from this malady. I welcome and indeed appreciate conflicting opinions that can help me set my moral compass pointing to the True North. Debate and Dialectics can hopefully counter the devils of obstinacy and intolerance that populate my mind.

For those who are disturbed by reading this account and for those who mistake my concern for cynicism, here’s an interesting quote:

“One cannot be deeply responsive to the world without being saddened very often” – Erich Fromm.

In Lak’ech.