At the core of elections is the idea of the public - Hindustan Times
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At the core of elections is the idea of the public

Apr 06, 2024 10:00 PM IST

Voting is the method of choosing representatives to enhance the public's wealth. Each one of us has a responsibility to strengthen the idea of the public

It is the season of voting once again. One might want to think that this is a carnival of democracy. But, alas, it is not. What does voting really have to do with democracy? Has the force of democracy been reduced to a mere act of voting?

A man walks past a large model of a woman's finger pressing a button of an electronic voting machine displayed outside the office of Election Commission of India in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, March 20, 2024. From April 19 to June 1, nearly 970 million Indians - or over 10% of the world's population - will vote in the country's general elections. The mammoth electoral exercise is the biggest anywhere in the world - and will take 44 days to complete before results are announced on June 4. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)(AP) PREMIUM
A man walks past a large model of a woman's finger pressing a button of an electronic voting machine displayed outside the office of Election Commission of India in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, March 20, 2024. From April 19 to June 1, nearly 970 million Indians - or over 10% of the world's population - will vote in the country's general elections. The mammoth electoral exercise is the biggest anywhere in the world - and will take 44 days to complete before results are announced on June 4. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)(AP)

Democracy is supposed to be about the power of the people. But what kind of power is this? “The People” do not have the power to enact legislation, to suggest policies, to make sure that the elected representatives do something for the benefit of the larger society. Common people cannot even access the institutions that stand for democracy such as the state assemblies and Parliament. We do not have the power to stop the blatant misuse of government wealth as well as public institutions for the personal benefit of politicians and their family members. So what power do people really have through this act of voting?

Voting today is seen as a transaction by the majority of the voters. The well-to-do class believes that the poorer sections benefit monetarily or otherwise from voting. From the context of the poor, there is nothing wrong with the benefits they get from voting. After all, they argue, it is only their votes that allow an individual to get political power, which is used by the politician to become richer. What is wrong with them demanding a tiny fraction of payment for their role in increasing the wealth of the politician?

The better-off class also sees voting as transactional. They too vote for material gains, such as economic policies that benefit their class. They vote on the basis of who is going to better support their ideologies. They too are demanding some personal benefit from their vote.

However, the significance of voting transcends this personal transaction. The importance of voting lies foremost in the idea of the public. In any society, there is a domain that is public and one that is private. Private land and private wealth belong to individuals. They can do with them as they please. This is not the case with public wealth.

What is public wealth? Public land — what is often called government land — is one example. Natural resources, oceans, forests, mountains and rivers are examples of public wealth. Social institutions, public universities and other such entities belong to all of us equally and reflect the wealth of the public. Essential values of a society such as fairness, equality, liberty, basic freedoms and fraternity are also public goods. All these are public in the sense that each one of us has an equal share in these. None of these public entities belong to the politicians or those in power at a particular time. None of them can be seen as private entities.

But then who actually owns the enormous wealth that belongs to the public? Who can decide what to do with that land and wealth? When we say that it is the government which owns them, what we are essentially saying is that each one of us, as the public, has an equal share in this wealth. This is the meaning of a democratic society. We are all co-owners and shareholders of the public domain. Most importantly, all of us — rich or poor, independent of caste, religion and gender — own the same percentage of the public wealth. The richest and the poorest people in a society have an equal share in what is seen as belonging to the public.

If all of us have an equal share in the public wealth, then who should take care of it? Who should take the responsibility that this public wealth is not squandered or looted and that it should be available for future generations to come? We cannot all govern this wealth since that would make it impractical. So we decide on representatives who will do this job on behalf of all of us.

Voting is this method of choosing representatives to protect as well as enhance the wealth of the public in which we all have an equal share. We elect somebody so that they can act as a trustee of the public wealth. Our primary responsibility as voters is to not let the wealth of the public go into the domain of the private.

By its very definition, the idea of the public is based on the principle that everybody living in that society has an equal right to all that is in the public domain. It is this idea of the public as shared co-owners of a society that makes a society a unified one. What this means is that we recognise that this land, this society, this nation does not belong to one group or the other, but is only a shared ownership in which each and every one of us has an equal share.

This recognition is possible only when we cultivate a sense of fellow beingness with others around us, however different they may be. This is the principle of fraternity. Ambedkar points out that while liberty and equality are important principles of democracy, it is only fraternity, or maitri, that holds these two principles together. As he notes, “Fraternity is the root of democracy”. Fraternity is also the root of the idea of the public, of a society and a nation.

The most important duty of voting is to protect all this public inheritance and not destroy it or play with it as we like. If we do not make politicians accountable for their actions in destroying what is of value to the whole of society, then voting has no relation to democracy.

As a voter, each one of us has a responsibility to strengthen the idea of the public. This is possible only if voting leads to the betterment of society as a whole and not the betterment of individuals or groups. This can be accomplished only by making sure that through our vote, those worse off than each one of us can improve their status, and that they have the same freedoms that you and I have.

Sundar Sarukkai’s recent books include The Social Life of Democracy and a novel, Following a Prayer. The views expressed are personal

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