Archive for June, 2009

Whose vote is it anyway?

29 June 2009

Middle class makes the maximum noise about politics, politicians & democracy. From state of the road to state of the economy, from cupidity in civic bodies to venality in central government, from reservations in education to reservations in jobs; everything exercises & needles middleclass. Yet when it comes to deciding who should represent us from parliament to municipal bodies they show a complete despair or even disdain towards the whole electoral exercise. The entity that seems so concerned about the state of affairs in India shows remarkable lassitude when it comes to participating in civil activism or voting. Getting the middleclass to move out of their couches to polling booths was the objective of campaigns like ‘Jaago India jaago’ or ‘your vote counts’ by some well meaning but naive people. It failed. Why?

One is motivated to act if something or someone interests us, survival demands it, self interest is to be protected or furthered, or seldom through altruistic feelings. Elections hardly touch any of these factors in its case. Middle class has had generally good time since independence, more so in last couple of decades. Whatever may happen in elections, whether Congress wins or BJP, the middleclass turf is always tended & protected. What holds true for middleclass is truer for ruling elite & big business. Come the yearly budget presentation time and media goes to town with the wish-list of haves : Abolish Securities Transaction Tax & reduce stamp duties, Raise basic exemption limit of personal income tax & allow higher deduction on interest payment on loans for property purchase, Hold commodities transaction tax in abeyance, and so on. Lobbies & bodies go into overdrive to have the wish-list of their constituency make it to the budget. Where do the poor & deprived figure in all of this? Meghnad Desai has captured it well in an article today. In it he states:

“……….Is it credible that when the monsoon is delayed and there is real hardship, the Cabinet Minister for Agriculture is in London? He was notably absent on the issue of farmer suicides and still he has been reappointed to a post in which he signally failed. What is the point of Sharad Pawar? Why does he not just stick to cricket and be done with it? Why do Indian farmers have to bat not even twelfth man but the last millionth in his scorebook? Why doesn’t the PM’s 100 days programme include sacking Pawar? Is he worried by the nine MPs the NCP has? Is this a serious way of running a government?……….

……….As the Budget looms near, I bet all the clamour will be for tax cuts for businesses and petrol subsidy for the middle classes. Of course, the middle classes believe they are aam aadmi/aam aurat. They shout the loudest and frequently get their way……….

The question for Pranab Mukherjee and Manmohan Singh is that what does the Budget do for the 80 per cent who don’t drive cars, don’t have refrigerators or tapped water? If some group wishes for a tax cut or subsidy can they show where the money will come from? In the UK, we have regularly calculated the distributive impact of each Budget so you know how the bottom 10 per cent fared relative to the top 10 per cent and everyone in between the two ends. Why can’t India do that? If we had a calculation like this, it would show that the poor pay the bulk of taxation. The many indirect taxes fall on the poor as much as the rich, but they fall disproportionately on the former. For all the rhetoric about Gandhiji and antyodaya, the last sixty years have put the poor the last among the claimants of development. ……….

World Bank puts those who earn less than $1 a day (Rs.1500/month) below poverty line. This would put 40% of India in that bracket. If it were to be raised to $2 a day (Rs,3000/month), 80% of India would find itself there. India’s per capita income has kissed the $1000 mark or under $3 a day. That means the top 20% must earn $7 a day (Rs.10,500/month). Were these 20% were further subjected to such 40:40:20 analysis, then still more such tragic disparities will be revealed. After 60 years of democracy, this is what middleclass & elite get effortlessly without active participation in democracy. After 60 years of democracy, this is what poor get for their five yearly (or sooner if numbers don’t tally in Loksabha) pilgrimage to the polling booths. Poor vote because they are acutely aware that on that day, if only on that day, what they do matters. They matter. How they vote is watched with baited breadth & trepidation by those who hold levers of power.

Pundits & Parties have put different spins on what they see as the reasons for electoral triumphs or debacles. CPI (M) concluded that their third front formulation was not credible enough & the manner of withdrawal of support to UPA government over the nuclear deal was flawed. It whitewashed real causes. It didn’t see how it had lost touch with people as evidenced in Nandigram, Singur or Lalgarh in Bengal or the unseemly squabbles between party & government heads in Kerala as the reasons of its rout. BJP felt it failed in reaching the inclusive vision of its ‘Hindutva’, whatever it means, to people & particularly to Muslims. But failed to explain its contrasting fortunes in Madhya Pradesh/Karnataka on one hand versus Rajasthan/ Uttaranchal on the other. Reductionists parties based on narrow parochial outlook like BSP/ SP / RJD/ LJD failed too. Whatever the analysis or whoever the analysts were, one thing is for sure that results took everyone by surprise, even the winners. General consensus seems that performance matters, especially for the poor for whom everything is at stake.

Sensing these undercurrents, the second innings of the UPA has began furiously with PM Manmohan setting the first 100 days agenda for governance and Sonia Gandhi setting the agenda for Food Security legislation for PM. National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme (NREGS)has proved a lifeline for rural folks despite its imperfections. Imperfections should not be an excuse for abandoning the scheme, but should act as impetus for overhauling or substituting with better mechanisms to deliver effective relief to those who need & deserve it. Politicians beware of getting away with paying lip service or deluding poor with cosmetic changes. Setting agendas is one thing but achieving them is something else. Poor of India have borne the burden of living for too long with fortitude. They have believed successive governments that promised them development & better future and have sacrificed their livelihoods, cultures, way of life & habitats for power projects, mines, defence projects etc.; in fact for all the accoutrements of progress & modernity. They were forced to accept rehabilitation & resettlement packages, which were neither adequate nor to their liking. Even these were tardily implemented or in some cases not at all. There seems to be resentment building over this throughout the country as is witnessed with the strong opposition to large scale land-grab that came in the garb of special economic zones (SEZ). Opposition is also hardening to handing over huge tracts of tribal lands to mining & industrial projects. All these rumblings are seen as machinations of demented desperados like Maoists out to thwart growth & development in the mould of notorious Pol Pot regime of Cambodia. That would be a grave mistake. Like everyone else, poor to have dreams. To begin with, they want freedom from hunger, access to healthcare & education for children, comfort of a decent shelter; in general they seek a life of dignity. Their restlessness after 60 years of promises unfulfilled is legitimate & long overdue. It would be dangerous to treat this merely as a law & order problem to be dealt with only by security forces.

It is the poor who have shown steadfast faith in democracy. It is they who make up the numbers come Election Day. Till now they voted as a sacred duty. Now time has come when they want their votes to deliver equity & justice.