A perilous path

High on ‘people power’ and an anti-politician mood, the Indian middle-class is misreading the signs of a functioning democracy, writes Barkha Dutt.
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Updated on Apr 30, 2011 12:12 AM IST
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None | By Barkha Dutt

You don’t have be a clairvoyant reader of tea- leaves to spot the paradoxical, but extremely illuminating patterns of behaviour that defined India’s headlines this past fortnight.

In Delhi, and perhaps in swish drawing-rooms across metropolitan India, the anti-politician chorus was hitting a crescendo. For a middle-class which was once too prickly to accept Slumdog Millionaire’s portrayal of grime and poverty as a defining image of India, we were strangely delighted to have the western press discuss our democracy and compare Jantar Mantar to Tahrir Square. Why blame them? This is now our own stated self-image. And as we clicked ‘Like’ on all the dislike and hatred that was given vent to online, we breezily offered Facebook as an alternative to elections.

But as the internet generation declared its derision for all things political, it was simultaneously poll time in key states of the country. And outside the self-loathing bubble that we have created on our laptops and blackberries, was a very different and telling reality. The voter turnout was staggeringly high in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. West Bengal broke many previous records when the north of the state revealed that almost 85% of the electorate had felt engaged enough to vote.

Travelling through rural Bengal almost two weeks ago on finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s campaign trail, I marvelled, not for the first time, at the fact that even the absence of bijli, sadak, pani had not turned the voter here into an apolitical, perennially disgruntled creature. In Nalhati, where Mukherjee’s son, Abhijeet, was fighting his maiden political battle in a seat traditionally held by the Left, a dusty, bumpy mud track wound its way around a cluster of impoverished families. There was no road for miles; and a single handpump belched out a muddy trickle that passed for water.

Yet when the chopper landed on the local school grounds throwing up a tornado of sand, the people still looked up at the skies as if searching for signs of possible change. I so vividly remember the determined expression on the face of an old woman, a thin-cotton sari wrapped around her fragile frame, as she pushed her way through the crowds to get a good listening seat at the rally that evening.

If Tahrir Square is the new metaphor for a determined citizen, why doesn’t she get to represent that? Or must you hate politics, democracy and the electoral process to be celebrated these days? Or perhaps be a shoe-hurler before the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal will want to write about you?

Did anyone notice that while we were so busy hating our democracy, panchayat elections were held in Jammu and Kashmir for the first time in more than a decade. Usually, the right-wing loony fringe is not just well organised in the venom it orchestrates online; it is especially vocal against anyone with a nuanced perspective on the genuine issues of alienation in the Valley. Any talk of ‘political solutions’ to the Kashmir issue gets you labelled ‘anti-national’ and invites instant online stalking.

Yet, here was a historically high participation in the local polls, that mirroring the previous two assembly elections, had defied boycott calls and militant threats. While middle class India was seeking affirmation in autocratic regimes and wanting to be more like China or Singapore, a young woman candidate was shot dead in Budgam district.

Several candidates withdrew their nominations fearing the same fate. And yet, even after the killing, the multi-phase panchayat elections has seen voting figures hit an 80% turnout. This is the how high the stakes are to protect the vote in some parts of India. No one is over-simplifying the political conclusions that can be drawn from the Kashmir local polls. Veteran watchers of the state are able to separate the complex and seemingly contradictory strands of participation in elections and problems of alienation co-existing. But equally, no one can deny that every election that is fair and transparent and is able to draw on the engagement of the people is one step towards mending broken fences. And yet, we were so heady on our own ‘people power’ that we forgot to acknowledge the real and meaningful assertions of popular will.

High-voter turnouts are not signs of benign forgiveness of political misdeeds. On the contrary, statisticians will tell you they often herald decisive mandates and could thus be tell-tale symbols of popular discontent as well. But their participation in democracy entitles voters to anger much more than our arm-chair venom.

It is no one’s case that democracy is an antidote for all our ailments. And electoral victories in the court of public opinion does not diminish the judicial accountability of any politician accused of violating the law. So, yes, India’s democratic institutions are weak and we are correct to be sceptical, even cynical. But can we with any honesty opt out of a system and still feel entitled to pronounce on it?

While we may not remember him on most days, when it suits us we often like to cloak our discontent behind the dignity of quoting Gandhi. So here are some sage words from the Mahatma who presciently said: “Democracy is an impossible thing until power is shared by all but let not democracy degenerate into mobocracy.” And talking of Gandhi, it’s a matter of some irony that we think our own country is one where the political process is not worthy of our respect or attention. But we see no contradiction in spending the weekend drooling over a ‘royal’ wedding, vicariously feasting on our slightly slavish cravings, left over from the Age of the Commonwealth.

Er, “people power?”

( Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV )

The views expressed by the author are personal

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