Once every five years or so (give or take the odd dissolved assembly or imploding coalition), something happens in India that makes it, for a few weeks, the toast of the democratic world. Thinkers, philosophers, world leaders and wheeler-dealers everywhere agree – the national election in India is, to champions of the democratic process everywhere, the ultimate expression and demonstration of their ideals and beliefs. It is a ringing endorsement of their conviction that all people are created equal, and have equal voice in shaping the future of their society.
As a conscious and active citizen, I believe that a correction is in order.
Those of us Indians that actually participate in this electoral process don’t do it in order to uphold the highest democratic ideals of the civilized world. No, no, nothing that grand. We are a simple and basic people, we Indians. Our motivation to vote, our drive to be a part of this glorified cattle round-up, stems from one thing:
It is our license to be and stay cynical without guilt or regret.
How so? Well, while the world sees a general election in India as a plural society exercising its franchise in a vibrant demonstration of the equality of humankind, we voting Indians see something else completely. Here’s how it looks to us:
Once every five years or so, Indians are required to ask themselves a simple question – do I care enough about how my country is governed to actually inconvenience myself over it? Historically, around 55% of the country’s citizens decide that they do care enough, and inconvenience themselves to prove it.
We do so first by ensuring that we acquire a Voter ID card. The only thing needed to get this card, technically, is for us to be resident citizens of India. By the time we have moved enough red-tape, corrected enough misspellings and greased enough palms to get the card, we are considering emigration.
Then we wait for the next election, paying close attention to which politician is aghast that actors smoke in public, and which one is promising to abolish short skirts all over the country, all the while wondering why either a matinee idol’s personal poisons or a glamour queen’s public attire makes any difference to us or our lives. We then find out that the two have joined forces and are presenting a united manifesto that will allow smoking, and tolerate short skirts, but won’t let you smoke while wearing a short skirt.
We give up on both, and decide to put our faith in the candidate representing the “3rd Front” who says he stands for a viable alternative. This candidate then makes it clear that tobacco and bare thighs are all OK, just as long as the owner of either will stop speaking English in public. Needless to say, our faith does not last too long.
We finally decide that our vote must go to a principled independent – an educated, middle-class person building a party comprised of like-minded people with similar backgrounds. Yes, we decide – it is time for a change. But this independent party has underestimated the virulence of the toxic environment they must operate in, and has soon splintered into 10 different independent parties that all stand for the same things, but cannot stand each other.
We give up differentiating between parties in our constituency, and decide to vote based on national level political alliances. But two days before the polling, we find out that seat-sharing arrangements between the allies have resulted in their being represented in our constituency by a former film star with white shoes, black teeth, red eyes and a heroin addiction. Why? – apparently, he comes with a strong vote bank in the interior of the state, but couldn’t be arsed about representing the district himself as he prefers to operate out of the “city”.
We can forgive almost anything, but draw the line at the white shoes.
We decide that we will cast a null vote – deliberately vote for multiple candidates so that our vote is discarded in the count. We get to the polling centre early on the big day. We find out which building our ID card lets us vote in, and shift queues thrice before finally joining the correct one. We get to the booth, and find that votes are no longer cast on ballot paper – they are cast using the electronic voting machine, and the machine does not allow us to cast a null vote. We must pick one candidate.
We pick the smoke approving, thigh appreciating, anti-English candidate. It’s been a long day, we could do with a cigarette and some eye candy, and in any case, there are no words in the English language that can satisfactorily articulate the thoughts in our head.
We spend the next week observing the purple dot on our nail shift ever closer to our fingertip as we wait for the results. We find out that the anti-English candidate won, but has changed his stance on the matter after receiving a cultural delegation from the UK. However, he is no longer a part of the “3rd Front”, as they did not recognize his efforts with a cabinet position, and has re-sworn his loyalty to the political dynasty he used to serve. The alliance we backed to govern at the Centre has mysteriously reformed and reshaped itself after getting routed in the polls, and announces its intention to “accept and contemplate the people’s verdict with humility”.
We wonder how our original intention to vote for a fresh new voice untainted by the lust for power mutated into a vote for a man with a one-item agenda, with said item being promptly dropped in favour of the existing agenda of the party he has joined and used to be a member of earlier. We laugh, thank God that we are not naive believers, congratulate ourselves on having done what was required in order to be able express our contempt at the whole process, and wait to be able to do it the next time.
And that is why we do it, dear reader – to be able to safely express our scorn at the whole democratic dance. To be able to say that we did what we were asked to do, and look how it turned out. To know that we have done what we could to make the process work – that it does not work the way it is meant to is merely proof that we were right to doubt it in the first place.
The bottom line is this – we are all cynics, every single man and woman that votes in India. There’s not one of us that believes that we are a part of some glorious democratic landmark. We know all too well the morass that is the Indian political landscape. We also know that without partaking of it, we cannot mock it.
And if we could not mock it, we could not endure it. So we vote, and snicker when we hear the day being described as a democratic landmark, and wrap ourselves again in cloaks of cynicism.
Cloaks that we remove for a day once every five years, so that we can earn the right to continue wearing them.