Why the Indian voter does not punish the rogue
The voter is ready to overlook the deviations in a politician as the politician appears to be very street-smart, hence useful in the short term.
Shaming is an arrogant word. It is effort masquerading as feat. The fact is that the consequence of shaming is not always shame. To be shamed you have to first give the world the right to shame you, which some do not grant because they wish to persist with what they believe is right. Others, many Indian politicians especially, have the gift of shamelessness, the reason why they are successful politicians in the first place. Long before Trump, they were Trump.
Indian journalists know the feeble relationship between shaming and shame very well because they are, among other things, in the business of shaming. Journalism is also a complaint to the people about rogue public figures, chiefly politicians. In this aspect, too, the profession appears to have very little impact. For decades, journalism has exposed political crime, corruption and other forms of immorality. For decades, the same politicians or their types, have thrived. Why is it that in a functional electoral democracy, the average voter, who has moral expectations from society, cinema, family and bureaucracy, does not reject flawed politicians?
As another election season begins there might be more video clips of sex scandals and many revelations of corruption. But the shaming would have little effect at the polls. As to why this is so, the middle class often whisper in private that the average Indian voter is a fool. People who do not even whisper honestly would say that the poor elect the rogues because there are no better options in the fray. But there could be a deeper reason why our politicians survive revelations and shame, and why there is no such thing in Indian politics as a career-ending scandal.
The elite presumption that a typical voter wants his politician to be a representation of the common man is fundamentally wrong. He may even say things to that effect parroting respectable views, but he appears to condone, and even admire, the politician who is uncommon. In an unequal nation, an equal man is probably an unremarkable man. For long, the voter has granted a status to politicians that is similar to a concession he has made for actors — that they are a special class of human beings who need not be like regular people, or even ideal people, who are generally useless. As a result, the voter’s real reasons for rejecting a politician are seldom moral.
The mass perception of a politician as a human anomaly is in the heart of many qualities of Indian politics that the sophisticated find confusing. This is the reason why in one of the most hostile places on earth for women, some of the most powerful politicians have been women; why in a land where marriage is a symbol of respectability, especially for women, several single women have risen to immense power; why polygamous men have nothing much to fear; why in the 2014 general elections the contest was, among other issues, between two unmarried men.
In Chennai, where I was raised, the media never spoke about the nature of the relationship between J Jayalalitha and her mentor MG Ramachandran, but the voters — the autorickshaw drivers and maids and bus conductors — openly admired her for her unusual social status. The media, at least then, never used to mention the fact that her rival M Karunanidhi had two wives, but his marital status never bothered his followers even though they themselves did subscribe to popular notions of morality. In the near future, overt homosexuals and eunuchs, too, may fare well in Indian politics.
The acceptance of the anomalous politician is also why politicians routinely land in an impoverished village in a chopper, exhibit inexplicable wealth but still manage to find success; and why criminals, too, do well.
The voter, of course, does not elect a politician for his or her deviations. Just that the deviations do not form the grounds for rejection as long as the politician in question appears to be very street-smart, hence useful in the short term.
This aspect of the voter has also been explained by the former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, who said, in a speech, that the voter elects the “crooked but savvy politician” because he can work the system and bring a host of services to the voter, services that the voter is entitled to but never reaches him without the help of a smart powerful man.
This is also the reason why the pious idealistic activists have historically fared poorly in the elections even though they are respected and are popular. The voter does not believe they know how to game India. They are good for protests.
Anna Hazare has said several times, even after his national fame, that he would lose his deposit if he contests an election. His reason is that the political system is run by money and muscle power. But, if his analysis is true how did Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP fare so well twice in Delhi? The more convincing reason why Hazare would lose an election is that the typical voter does not perceive him as a street-smart man who can beat the system. Kejriwal, on the other hand, despite his high moral pedestal, has successfully portrayed himself as a shrewd man, which he is.
Apart from small material benefits, the voter also expects his politicians to be strong enough to protect him from caste and religious violence. Such a capacity, again, is widely perceived as something that the street-smart possess more than the righteous. The upper classes, who are not vulnerable to communal violence, would claim that the Right-wing is a lesser evil than the corrupt. Those who are easier to hack into pieces would have the contrary view. In either case, there is too much at stake for the average Indian voter to reject a politician just because he has been shamed on moral grounds.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The author tweets as: @manujosephsan.
The views expressed are personal.