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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Democrary and the Great Disconnect

The news papers carried this morning  a fervent appeal by the newly appointed Chief Election Commissioner urging the Bihari youth to vote in great numbers. The item evoked my interest so I wanted to know more. I am normally done with four newspapers in close to two minutes. If my reading glasses are at hand well and good, if they are not, I make the newspaper adjust to my myopia. But I don’t miss very much. Glasses or no glasses, I manage to get the flavor and I thank God for giving me that day, my daily fix of sleaze and scandal, high-minded rhetoric and promises galore, privileged intimation of forthcoming political defections or new alliances in the making. Sometimes I find my name figuring in there. Seasonally, for the last couple of years the odds of my being appointed to some post or the other has been discussed. Then I reach out for my glasses. I like to be enlightened on these matters. Otherwise two minutes is all that I can spare. But today I made an exception. For a public cause, I called to the aid of my failing eyesight my pair of reading glasses.

Why have the youth of Bihar voluntarily renounced their right to vote? By not exercising their right to vote are they making a subtle political statement? And thinking of the their alienation and withdrawal the martyr’s memorial, just a few hundred meters away from where I live, floated before my mind’s eye! The statues of the young students frozen in their stance –marching into a hail of bullets yet holding the tricolor aloft- cast derision on death and mock the might of the empire over which the sun never set. They paid for with their lives to secure for us our independence and the right to vote. Would they consider sitting somewhere in the heaven, wearing their halo of martyrdom around them, their sacrifice worth it? Was the hard fought right to self-determination worth the price after all?

I wondered if this abstention is due to the fact there is an absence of worthwhile opportunities for raising their political awareness before they acquire the right to vote. The traditional modes of participation like student union elections are largely nonexistent. Student politics has always mirrored the concerns and preoccupation of national politics and is a report of what is happening in the broader society. For the youth it is a period of apprenticeship in the culture of parliamentary democracy, a recruiting ground for political cadres, and it incubates the future political leadership. The JP movement of 1974 is a case in point. One may not agree with either the agenda, or the philosophy behind the “Total revolution” but who can deny the reality of the ‘radical youth’ with their unabashed enthusiasm and utopianism or the momentousness of the occasion?

Or is it because the nature of politics today offers no scope for romantic idealism to the youth? What is there for them to be passionate about? There are no radically different visions of society on offer-visions which can captivate their imagination or inspire hope. All the parties dish out the same trite agenda whose similarity and repetitiveness emit a stale odour which you can catch from miles away. Nor for that matter the farcical change of the hearts and minds which compels large scale migration of members from one political club to the other holds their interest. The youth know they would be better occupied following the fortunes of their favourite sports stars –their movement from Milan AC to Real Madrid or from Kolkata Knight Riders to Chennai Super kings.

Arthur Miller had once observed that our political life, thanks to 24/7 TV is now “profoundly governed by the modes of theatre, from tragedy to vaudeville to farce.” The television is both a powerful ally and a useful tool through which the politicians try to project themselves as characters that they are not. In the live telecast of the proceedings of the houses representatives appear to have very few stakes in what goes on in the house. At their most radical, they can only throw a couple of chairs taking care not to cause hurt to their assumed adversaries or get hurt themselves. Even as a spectacle it comes out a loser in terms of audience preference for programmes like WWF.

But even if the youth somehow overcome their aversion there are not very many of them left to vote. A very significant section of them has been forced to become absentee voters out of dire necessity. They have joined the exodus to Delhi, to Poona, to Bangalore or wherever they see opportunity for decent education. And those not endowed with wealth or work are similarly forced to migrate in search of livelihood.

I realized that I had only questions, no answers, only hypotheses and speculations no hard theories. Obviously, I could not get under the skin of the young generation, I could not think like them. But I tried to make an effort of imagination, a nimble leap across the years. What would I be doing, say, if I were eighteen today? Would I listen to the elderly rubbish and make a beeline to the nearest voting booth? In the absence of ideology and idealism, faced to choose between hedonism and nihilism where would I be standing. I am ashamed to admit that I found myself merging into the character of that deeply connected youth in that interesting commercial, in spiritual communion with his mobile, knocking down kids and flower vases, ready to fall off malls. In that state of supreme connect, who would care for the vote?


BMD said...

Caveat: this is an outpouring, not a researched and edited response!!!

1. Some answers to your questions are already thinly laid out in your analyses:
a) one party's manifesto sure does appear to be the same as other. Greed someone wrote in today's newspaper is the only secular thing: caste, community, age and gender do not matter for greed
b) In the 70's Indians used to say that West is individualistic and we are family & community oriented. Nothing is farther from the truth.
3. I want o highlight two hypotheses:
a) The concept of countervailing power: JK Galbraith once mentioned that this was the most important facet of a democracy and big industry challenged by big unions is absent now. Trade Unions in any case do not canvass for the benefits of the entire working class but only their constituency in organized sector which is not more than 10% in India.
b) Secession of the Successful: What Reich said for US should resonate in Urban India today: "In the new global economy -- in which money, technologies and corporations cross borders effortlessly -- a citizen's standard of living depends more and more on skills and insights, and on the infrastructure needed to link these abilities to the rest of the world. But the most skilled and insightful Americans, who are already positioned to thrive in the world market, are now able to slip the bonds of national allegiance, and by so doing disengage themselves from their less favored fellows. The stark political challenge in the decades ahead will be to reaffirm that, even though America is no longer a separate and distinct economy, it is still a society whose members have abiding obligations to one another.

4. Politicians are no more fighting for a public good that you can support them: one or the other. They are busy fighting each other over spoils. They are only busy in the Art of Accusation. Not in the art of building common goods.
5. Your hypothesis on a combination of factors- you are not supposed to dream of an equitable society, politics is evil, government is bad, etc together form the answer to your question: we are in the era of quid pro quo officially sanctioned, and the youth has a right to know what it will get if it engages in politics.

At least as of now the future of politics and governance is bleak, as that of the youth engaging in politics. Politics is the other, private goods are mine!
For Reich:
Secession of the Successful
Robert B. Reich
New York Times Magazine, Jan. 20, 1991, p. 16+.

Manoje Nath said...

if your outpouring is such a gold mine of pertinet observations it would be fascinating to read your reasearched and considered response. i wish to hear form you sometime .
the impending elections in bihar will keep the political pot boiling for sometime and we will discuss these issues in the light of your observations in future posts.

BMD said...

I have asked intellectuals: do you know what an elected representative is supposed to do, and what a bureaucrat?
The answers have been sunning. They expect the politician to clean the streets and the bureaucrat to dictate the law!!!!

Er. AMOD KUMAR said...

Respected Sir,
You have written a great post related to youth which is very true.
In my view,Whatever I know full practice of democracy means there is equal and universal access in all areas to all youth and citizens on every area and opportunity. Only democracy provides the environment to youth for their betterment and development.
Thanks for a nice post Sir.
With Warm Regards..

Manoje Nath said...

Dear Mr Kumar ,
Whether equality of opportunity shall remain merely a pious proclamation of intent or an acheived relaity depends largely on us who make democracy work.Sadly we have seen a lot of people retreat from public life ,making it easier for the conmen and confidence tricksters.It is too complicated but by perhaps more and more people arguing and discussing some thing will turn up.Thanks for showing your interest .

ajoyipsbhr85 said...

please try to meet the Late Mohandass Karamchand Gandhi [not literally but in thought] and try to find out whether he is ashamed of having driven the British away...! atleast we had credible Institutions then, while we have none left today....!
his views on the Indians' ability to Rule themselves would also make sense, if it now resembles with that of Sir W.Churchill...?
what he would think about Mr. N.R Godse... was he sent by GOD...?