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Our age of apathy

The revolution in Egypt was an extraordinary manifestation of long suppressed human freedoms finding expression. Milind Deora and Nikhil Dhanrajgir write.

india Updated: Feb 20, 2011 21:30 IST

The revolution in Egypt was an extraordinary manifestation of long suppressed human freedoms finding expression. Ordinary Egyptians risked their lives to reshape their future and hasten reforms that will, in all likelihood, include free and fair elections for the first time in their nation’s history. Most of us in India, on the other hand, have known nothing but democracy. Imperfect and noisy as ours is, we cannot begin to contemplate an alternative to it. By the same token, we are often guilty of extolling its virtues to sugarcoat our failures and inadequacies.

Perhaps it is time for a reality check.

For starters, the gratuitous stalling of parliamentary proceedings is counter-productive and amounts to a subversion of democracy. The best way of addressing national issues and making government accountable is to have a robust parliamentary debate and legislate for positive change. What we are witnessing instead is a potent mix of stubborn political opposition and public apathy that is crippling our democratic process.

A rapidly growing Indian middle-class should be a catalyst for positive social change and better governance by exercising its collective franchise at every opportunity. But this isn’t the case at all.

A self-absorbed middle-class cares more about preserving its own narrow interests than helping shape a national agenda. Despite the fact that processes like economic reforms have allowed the middle-class to prosper, it is unwilling to ride out the bumps on the road to progress in its quest for instant gratification. A non-functioning Parliament in this context is a mere aberration far removed from everyday life. The truth is, however, that social mobility, infrastructure, urbanisation, price rise, inflation and the stock market — issues that directly concern the middle-class — are all inextricably linked and a function of governance with civic participation at its core.

According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a Stockholm-based intergovernmental organisation, India’s average voter turnout is about 60%, which places its voter participation at 85 out of 140 countries. Those numbers would be far less flattering it weren’t for the poor that defy the odds to vote. Electoral data from the past 30 years indicate they turn out in large numbers to elect a new government while apathetic urban middle-class stays at home.

India’s secure middle classes often complain about the quality of governance and politicians but are strangely indifferent to participative democracy. The danger here is that growing public apathy may enable political leaders to ignore voters altogether. This would be inconceivable in countries like the US and other industrialised democracies precisely because tax-paying citizens are more invested in public policy.

Americans, for instance, care a great deal about where their tax dollars end up and often influence their country’s domestic and foreign policies by making their voices and votes count. In comparison, less than 4% of Indians pay direct taxes, which may explain a wider disconnect. Ironically though, even those Indians that do pay taxes care little about the returns on their tax rupees.

It is no surprise, then, that voter apathy dilutes the quality of the national debate and reduces it to a sounding board for local community issues instead of a space to address larger systemic ones.

There is always more political leaders can do to involve citizens in the political process. But civil society must also remain engaged over the long haul rather than just episodically. 26/11 is a case in point. The sense of outrage in the immediate aftermath of the attacks failed to translate into a force for sustained public opinion and a show of strength at the polling booth. A dismal 43 % electoral turnout in Mumbai just months after the attacks was another glaring expression of voter apathy despite polls and pundits predicting all time highs. Unfortunately, Mumbaikars frittered away the opportunity to build a coalition of the willing that could have so easily emerged from the rubble of 26/11.

Now is as good a time as any to put progress over partisanship and bring representative democracy back on an even keel.

(Milind Deora is a Member of Parliament. Nikhil Dhanrajgir is with the Netherlands Institute of Human Right.)

*The views expressed by the authors are personal