Why Corruption Doesn’t Put Ordinary Indians Off Voting

WESTERNERS DISENCHANTED WITH THEIR POLITICIANS COULD LEARN A LOT FROM THE CONSTRUCTIVE ATTITUDE OF THEIR INDIAN COUNTERPARTS

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Dr Mukulika Banerjee, an anthropologist at the LSE, blogs about a paradox of Indian democracy: its politicians are terrible yet the ‘aam aadmi’ (the common man) remain amazingly enthusiastic about politics.

India is one of the few nations where poverty does not reduce one’s propensity to vote. And in contrast to Europe and America, turnouts have remained remarkably buoyant. This is despite it becoming very clear that corruption is endemic in Indian politics with vast number of MPs facing criminal charges.

Banarjee explains that:

…despite the low opinion of politicians and politics, election campaigns are exciting and meaningful events for the aam aadmi. For it is then that politicians, the khaas aadmi, are briefly humbled — their clothes crumpled in the heat and dust, their voices hoarse among the raucous crowds, their hands folded as they ask for votes, their heads bowed as they enter the humblest dwellings and listen to the angry complaints of their constituents. While no aam aadmi is fooled by this sudden humility — Netaon ke khaney aur dikhaney ke daant alag hotey hain (politicians have two sets of teeth one for eating and for showing the world) — elections at least force them to keep up appearances. During this weeks-long carnival, the fact that even the powerful can be overthrown and put out of power is a potent idea that motivates people to go out and vote. And if that involves having to vote for other rascals, well, “a thorn in the flesh can only be removed by another thorn,” as one man wryly observed.

But there are also other reasons why Indian voters, especially those in the bottom millions, show up at polling booths in such spirit and numbers. It is not just about which party will win, but the voter’s experience of voting itself. Evidence from all around the country shows that the free and fair nature of elections, magnificently maintained by the Election Commission, ensures that people who show up to vote are judged only on their identification as voters and no other criteria. So election day is the only moment, and the polling booth the only space, where it really does not matter if you are poor, a woman, a Dalit or tribal — you are treated by officials the same as any other voter. This extraordinary, brief glimpse of what equality must feel like is a powerful motivator. And as people have remarked, the same ink mark on every voter’s left index finger also has a curious levelling effect, turning it into a coveted sign of belonging.

If the significance of such a small detail may surprise us, even more surprising is the eloquence with which ordinary people are able to explain so articulately why voting is the foundational evidence of their citizenship. They stress that all Indians have a constitutional right to vote and it is therefore their duty to exercise that right. They point out that seeing their names on electoral rolls is, if nothing else, a bureaucratic reassurance that they do actually exist, so forgotten are they the rest of the time. And they need to assert their presence to the powerful, who always seems to forget about them once they have harvested their votes. By using their vote wisely, it becomes a weapon in their hands.

Those who are too poor to make any other sort of offering (daan) to society or the gods also noted that mat-daan was at least free and bestowing it brought them civic virtue. It is no wonder then that election day is anticipated with a mixture of dread and excitement by all. And on the day, people all over the country do dress up and make the extra effort as they would for any other festival.

Thus, while the aam aadmi is acerbic in his opinion of politicians, he refuses to concede all of politics to their corrupt ways, to let rajneeti alone define politics. Instead, he sees clearly the wider political realm of Indian democracy, in which his own role as a citizen is in holding politicians to account, choosing his candidate wisely and, above all, turning out to do his voting duty, and thereby manifest his membership of the republic — for she too is part of politics. This is the lokniti of the aam aadmi.

I wonder if the aam aadmi are now being rewarded for their continued engagement by the emergence of the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party.

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