Assembly elections are upon us. Universal suffrage is one of the great gifts of our constitution and the elections are our opportunity for making a choice; if we do not make a correct choice then we would have to suffer the consequences of the ineptness of our choice. So we must choose wisely! We have been fed on this diet for so long that I have come to believe that this bit of wisdom has welled up from within me; it is immanent, self-evident and without the need of proof. But I am wondering whether voting is a privilege or a punishment?
My diffidence stems from a variety of reasons. To start with, the high power but subtle canvassing by the media, by way of surveys and opinion polls, has already narrowed the choice of acceptable alternatives to the two major political alliances. The oracular wisdom is that the third front is a mishmash coalition of non-serious contenders, which in some situations will act like red herrings.
This time round the daggers are out in the open. Votes are being boldly solicited, even by reasonable men, in the name of caste or religion. According to the current ethic, members of the same caste must share the same electoral preference. I belong to a marginal constituency of voters; my caste men are thinly spread all over the state, not concentrated in any place to make us count. My individual vote is of no consequence. Where does that leave people like us? Maybe the Election Commission will designate a separate category for sundries. Or would it transfer my name to a constituency where one of my caste men is seeking election? Or shall I be disenfranchised by default?
The fact that I am thoroughly confused as to the character and worth of the leadership of the two competing groups is another cause for my reluctance. Like it happens in a wife-swapping community, each one of our leaders has slept with the other. At one time or the other they have been allies and have now split. Only the other day the current alliance partners had draped each other in a set of threadbare attributions - calling each other thugs, frauds, backstabbers, communal - and now they are recommending each other as leaders full of political virtue who would take Bihar out of the valley of tears. Reminded of their earlier opinions, equally copious volumes of contradictions, refutations rebuttals, and revision of opinions are offered. Were they lying yesterday or are they being truthful today? What irreconcilable difference kept them implacably hostile for decades and if they have come together what was the factor for this moistening of the soul? Sheer opportunism kept them glued together and vaulting ambition made them part company. The voters of Bihar were not even distantly on their agenda. Given their long history of association, betrayal, homecoming there is no reason to trust them now. I am not sure that those whom I choose will not end up on the other side.
There are other weightier reasons: even though they offer themselves as alternatives to each other both the alliances hew in to the same logic of power; even though they claim to be as different from each other, their agendas seem to be informed of the same concerns. We look for political manifestos that chart routes to a better and more prosperous future but both the alliances are by habit preoccupied with the past. They both present a vision of an alternative social order; a social order in which full reparation has been made for the iniquities and injustices suffered in historical times. In the popular debate it has been termed as Mandal Vs Kamandal.
For the Grand Alliance, reservation of jobs in government services - with plans to extend it to private enterprise - by the affirmative action of reservation is the essence of social justice. Since reservation is an open ended scheme with no time-frame or cap, there are fears in some quarters that in the end it will put in place another system of privileges and exclusion. Unborn generations of certain social groups come to this world in debt to the disadvantaged groups; they must pay for the putative sins of their ancestors. In the new jurisprudence, one can be punished not for what you have done but for who you are. This poses huge difficulties for the system: because there must be an affective nexus between guilt and punishment. But under the pressure of the majority the system is forced to violate its own rule; when reminded of the premise or the promise of the constitution it refuses to enter into a debate. The much reviled pre-modern Manuvadi system can now be achieved by parliamentary and democratic processes. Hardik Patel’s agitation for wholly unfeasible demands, which are impossible to meet, flows from the irrefutable logic that those with sufficient numbers and political clout can get reservation. The complexity of the politics of reservation must be evident to all but immediate gains are what matters; the devil can take the hindmost.
The Kamandal brigade claims to be both the self-appointed guardian of the interest of all the Hindus as well as the custodian of their racial memory. It cites the same rationale of the reconciliation of a large generalized grievance of victimisation in historical times at the hands of the foreign Muslim invaders. Their task is equally open ended, loosely defined and amorphous but there is no doubt that the aims are reactionary, retrograde, and revanchist. Political theologian of social justice and philosophers of Hindutva when in power apply the same criteria for determining “who does and who does not belong to a given civic community. ”
Facts of biology become the determinant for entitlement. We have not yet forgotten the militaristic slogan BHURA BAL SAF KARO (Bhu – Bhumihar, Ra- Rajput, Ba- Brahmin, L- Lala, and Kayasth) that emerged as an agendum in an earlier regime, and was voiced quite openly in speeches and street rallies. A crazy idea that police should withdraw to let the Hindus wreak their vengeance was allegedly articulated and practiced in Gujarat. I am sure it must have equally shaken those at the receiving end of it. Both the BHURA BAL and Gujarat have become part of our sense of time and place. Disagreement should not invite peril in a democracy. Fear is the characteristic of totalitarian regimes. So whichever way I vote it will be for an essentially pre-modern, sectarian regime capable of inducing fear of persecution and discrimination in a sizeable section of my fellow citizens. Whoever comes will be fighting yesterday’s wars today, and our todays will have become yesterdays for nothing.
The reasons for disenchantment are many more. The electoral arena is crowded with the heirs of political dynasties who bring nothing to the table except that they are the sons of their fathers. Exempt from the compulsion of earning a living, they roll in unbelievable luxury and bide their time to stake claims for a slice of the cake of political power. Chances are that many of them will be elected, and we would have helped the creation of a new aristocracy, a new feudal class. Again the irony of the situation is that the new feudalism will draw its sustenance from the democratic processes that we cherish so much and the results are achieved with remarkable economy of effort. There are no violent upheavals; the electoral mechanism, the jewel in the crown of parliamentary state form is retained and the facade of our precious democratic form is maintained in all particulars. It is our version of the “velvet revolution” with retrograde and reactionary aims.
Power is tested on the touchstone of legitimacy and in a democracy it is the electoral fray where the claims of legitimacy are interrogated, denied or granted. The Midas touch of the people’s mandate has become the ultimate test of political virtue.
Every election ritually consecrates history sheeters of yore, murderers, kidnappers, thugs, extortionists as our leaders.
This election is no different. No wonder political discourse is conducted in the lingo of street brawls- maa ka doodh piya hai, chaati phad denge etc. In fact one our venerable leaders openly threatened a serving CM on prime time TV. What could be more tragic, farcical or absurd that the fight within the terrain of national politics is now confined to a ridiculously tiny number of jobs that are available with the government, or renaming of roads and alleys?
Meanwhile, in Bihar, development issues are left to the ingenuity of the statistics department and captive intellectuals of government funded think tanks who tote up figures indicating a meteoric rise of the state in every sphere, but urgent problems of poverty, insanitation, education, health care, and the catastrophic erosion of democratic infrastructure stare us in the face every day.
On my table diary 28th October the D-Day, the date for polling in Patna, is marked in admonitory red, but with every passing day I feel less and less sure of my ability to choose rightly.