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Never say never again

In these polls, none of the urgent issues has been prioritised by mainstream parties. Yet, we vote. Are negative emotions (read: anger) becoming our main motivation? Pratik Kanjilal ponders.

india Updated: May 08, 2009 21:45 IST

In my impressionable childhood, I was told that the beauty of Indian democracy is that anyone at all can become Prime minister. In this election, I have begun to fear that this is true. No one has any idea whom we are electing, or even if he or she is the sort of person you can leave your children alone with.

But perhaps ‘fear’ is too strong a term. ‘Hopeful trepidation’ would be a more accurate description of my state of mind. Like you, I dread the circuses of the absurd that perform in Parliament when mainstream political parties cop out. At the same time, since the said parties have their own unsanitary insanities — one swears by the virtues of royal blood, another by ethnic purity and yet another by the ghost of Stalin unlaid — I welcome novelty and experimentation. So do you, going by the high turnout in this election, which has stirred out even traditional abstainers like the youth and the upper middle class.

Partly, they were drawn out because government, political parties, corporates and the media turned the dab of indelible ink on the index finger into a fashion statement. Of course, many of them - including NDTV and the Election Commission itself — got it wrong, inking the right index finger instead of the left. But that’s what fashion excels in, making what’s wrong look right, so what the hell?

In the 1950s, game theory modelling established that voters are drawn to the booth by a sense of civic duty or personal satisfaction, not by the delusion that they can individually control electoral results. It’s rather like fashion — you feel good and look good doing it. The exception to the rule is when a candidate holds out new hope, as Barack Obama did in the US election last year. People also turn out in strength when they feel angry or threatened — the last spike in US turnout before 2008 was in the Sixties, when everyone thought they would be fried by Nikita Khrushchev’s nukes.

In the current Indian election, everyone knows that their vote will make only a marginal difference to the outcome. This year, polls, manifestos and television debates are mere preliminaries that politicians are impatient to be done with, so that they can hunker down to the absorbing business of buying and selling power and favours among themselves. This time, the government will not be formed by the popular vote but by barter behind closed doors.

So that leaves hope and fear — and the anger and protest they ignite — as motivators of the turnout we’ve seen. Hope? What a hope! None of the ordinary yet urgent issues which face us, such as access to basic amenities, education and healthcare, were prioritised by any mainstream party. When politicians think that welfare means subsidised rice with their mugs printed on the bag, there isn’t much room for hope.

So that leaves only the negative emotions as motivations. What a grim prospect, if the citizens of a tiger economy vote out of anger at the present and fear for the future. And what a resounding endorsement of democracy — after decades of disappointment, we’re still willing to give it a go. We’re still prepared to let anyone at all become Prime Minister.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine