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Why voters are not as powerful as they are made out to be

Debraj Bhattacharya

Updated: April 4, 2014, 3:33 PM IST
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Every time there is an election in India, especially a Parliamentary election, we see certain myths about the voter in India being propagated.

Indian and foreign media harp on the fact that in the elections, every voter has one vote and therefore the rich and poor are equally powerful to decide who will rule the country.

Celebrities come out and say that all of us should go and vote and take part in the selection of the leaders of the country.

Voting is the pious responsibility of the Indian citizen and the fact that every time an election takes place large number of poor people goes out to vote shows how important voting is for the poor Indians and how this reflects the triumph of democracy.

There are of course a few isolated acts of violence here and there and a few criminals do get to win but nonetheless Indian democracy shows how powerful the ordinary citizen is.

We perhaps need to take a closer look at what actually happens in a election.

Firstly, let us take note of a fact that is beyond dispute - in spite of turning out in huge numbers for voting, the poor people have continued to remain poor and a poor peasant or a poor slum dweller's fortunes does not usually change much after the 'dance of democracy' in the form of elections is over.

No one can say that the people of the hundred-odd backward districts of India have not voted in the past elections but have continued to remain poor. Why is it that voting in the election did not change their prospects?

Secondly, if we take a look at the system by which members of Parliament are chosen, we shall see that it is a myth that people vote to elect the party who will govern the country or the Prime Minister who will govern the country. What the voter actually does is to elect one particular candidate in their own constituency. S/he has no right to decide whether Congress or BJP or some other party will actually come to power or not. So as a voter you have no right to say whether you want a particular party to come to power in Delhi.

You only have the right to decide who will be the MP in your constituency. That's all the power the voter actually has. The rest depends on arithmetic.

Thirdly, the voter only has the right to choose between candidates that have been put up in their own constituency. Otherwise they can say none were found suitable. So if a voter is staying in, say, Bundelkhand and supports party A s/he can only vote for party A provided that party has put up a candidate in his/her constituency.

It is perfectly possible that party A is not in a position to actually put up a candidate in his/her constituency. In that s/he cannot select the party that s/he likes.

We also need studies that will look closely as to whether voters are actually 'free' to vote for whoever they want to vote for. In other words, is the voter the free citizen of India who can exercise his/her voting rights as he/she pleases or there are compulsions for voting for particular parties?

My own field experience suggests that the poor have many compulsions to vote for a particular party and political parties try to ensure that poor people vote for their party through a mixture of carrots and sticks.

In a village it is not very difficult to find out who will vote for whom and also not very difficult to pass on the message that if you don't vote for us then you will have to face consequences.

The same is true of slums which can be easily monitored. So the 'secret ballot' is hardly ever a closely guarded secret. Hence electoral success does not necessarily mean that a particular political party has won the heart of the 'free citizens' who have whole-heartedly voted for them.

It may also mean that the political party which has won is actually able to monitor its voters and play the carrot and stick game better than other political parties.

In recent times we have seen the propaganda machinery of major political parties becoming more and more powerful. The distinction between product advertisement and political campaigning has becoming blurred.

Even opinion polls are allegedly doctored. Parties with more money are able to employ propaganda specialists to advertise for them, create catchy slogans, project leaders as superheroes, manipulate emotions, hide facts and doctor data.

In the face of such massive propaganda campaigns, how freethinking is the voter?

The enthusiasm with which film stars are being deployed by political parties to win votes shows that the parties understand that people who can charm the voter are valuable.

If voters are free thinkers, then shouldn't there be a complete ban on 'election campaign'? Let the parties put up candidates and let the freethinking voters decide who is the best candidate. Why spend humungous amounts of money on television ads, posters, festoons, helicopters, etc?

The truth that all parties know is that whoever can brainwash better will win.

But after the election there will be another mythological statement - the people of India have spoken and given their verdict. May be poor, disempowered men and women of India also like to believe in this myth.

Reality can be too painful and sometimes, it is easier to believe in myths.
First Published: April 4, 2014, 3:33 PM IST