THE largest, and far and away the most riotously colourful and obstreperous democratic exercise in the whole wide world? So what? For actor-playwright-filmmaker Girish Karnad there is much more to life than a mere vote and some shrill promises tossed about callously from makeshift pulpits to ensnare a bored but forgiving, even naively optimistic, mass of voters. "The poll process is far too chaotic and I have no intention of being a part of it. You can quote me on that," says the Bangalore-based celebrity, making no bones about his contempt for the way Indian politicians tend to conduct themselves come election time.
Karnad, of course, is not alone. Many of his ilk around the country and across the ideological spectrum share his sense of disgust. And maybe not without reason. But are their voices of any import anymore? In fact, are they even heard? Today, as they themselves are the first to admit, the intelligentsia is a hopelessly marginalised, even anachronistic, bunch of figures in the Great Indian Electoral Circus.
The power that emanates from the ballot box once every five years is a heady commodity. It inveigles everybody: maharajas and mavericks, satraps and madcaps, godmen and charlatans, political has-beens and parliamentary wanna-bes, power-brokers and power-seekers, social climbers and moneybags. And it corrupts absolutely. Electoral exigencies are the fountainhead of all that is wrong with Indian democracy: cynical exploitation of power, unbridled malfeasance, the naked pursuit of self-aggrandisement by a class that lives on the fat of the land and then has the gall to pretend that it is doing everybody a grand favour. Understandably, intellectuals, piqued and powerless, are loath to let the politicos of the day take them for yet another ride to nowhere. So, the general refrain among those whose job it is to keep the right ideas flowing for the rest of the country to draw moral sustenance from is rather predictable: "Vote? Me? Does it really matter?"
"The Indian intelligentsia has been rendered completely redundant in the present scheme of things," laments man of letters Rajendra Yadav, who edits the Hindi literary monthly, Hans . "Our polity, perhaps our entire society, has been denuded of all values and ideologies. Poll candidates have no commitment to any national cause. All they are interested in is power. So they hop from one party to another and then another like we change shirts. We are set to enter the new century in the garb of barbarians—devoid of any moral sense."
The picture could not be bleaker. Yet, in the hands of the hollow men who rule the destiny of 900 million people, it can only get darker. A large majority of the educated, progressive sections of the Indian population has responded in the only manner that the system seems to allow them access to: they have thrown up their hands in despair, made feeble noises in indignation and, rightly or otherwise, turned their backs on the election process. Their growing indifference to all things political quite clearly stems from the realisation that men of ideas cannot count for much in a system where elected representatives of the people think nothing of riding roughshod over constitutional institutions and ideological mores. "Intellectuals realise the system is so corrupt that it is beyond cure and therefore there's no point in voting," argues columnist Iqbal Masud.
So not voting is no big deal for India's intellectuals. Because one vote, they feel, will change nothing, only add to their woes. "Can you name one candidate in Delhi I can vote for?" asks Yadav. "Then why should I take the trouble of casting my ballot?" Calcutta painter Paritosh Sen is grappling with much the same problem: "I have little choice. Although the ruling party in
West Bengal is not as tainted as the other parties, it hasn't exactly covered itself with glory over the years."
Yet, Sen will vote. But the trouble is, he will, like so many other men and women who matter, do so with little enthusiasm or conviction. No matter who he votes for, the nation as a whole will still be left gasping for breath in the lower depths of hopelessness. "I don't think many intellectuals will go to the voting booth this time around," admits Masud. But he is quick to point to the dangers inherent in such widespread disenchantment. "There is a great deal of indifference among the 'moderate' middle class, too, and this is the greatest danger to our democracy. This year's elections should be closely watched as parliamentary democracy itself is being questioned. There is a growing cynicism towards politics, with the intelligentsia completely disillusioned with the electoral system."
Indeed, the situation has come to such a pass that even politically active intellectuals, too, are faced with grave doubts. Says U.R. Ananthamurthy, Sahitya Akademi chairman and a writer with strong socialist moorings: "I don't have the same enthusiasm. The ideological preoccupation that drove me to politics has dissolved." Ditto for Ramon Magsaysay award-winning theatre personality K.V. Subbanna, who has actively campaigned in most Lok Sabha elections since 1952 but is yet to make up his mind about hitting the trail on this occasion even though polling day is only just days away. "The situation is very fluid. The ideological base of none of the parties is strong. It is difficult to believe in any party," says the man who has always chosen to be on the side of parties which are "slightly leftist, secular, socialist and have faith in Gandhian values". His political work, says Subbanna, "is restricted to campaigning during the elections". And he always makes it a point "to work against the party in power".
EVEN the Left has been co-opted by the electoral mainstream. Therefore, Marxist intellectuals are in the throes of a worsening dilemma. Says academic Randhir Singh: "Today, even on the Left, candidates are only interested in winning seats. So poll alliances have assumed great importance." The idea behind participating in elections, says Singh, should be to get the political beliefs of the Left across to the people. And that is definitely not happening. Intellectuals, he feels, have lost their edge. "There is a strong trend of anti-intellectualism in this country. Intellectuals are doing very well in the system," says Randhir Singh, whose name does not figure in the Delhi voters' list.
Hasn't the degeneration that has afflicted the entire fabric of our society left its ugly mark on the face of the intelligentsia as well? "Of course, it has," says Assamese filmmaker Gautam Bora. "Intellectuals are as opportunistic and amoral as anyone else. They, too, are fast losing credibility." Bora, like many other intellectuals in Assam, will not vote.
But, surely, this couldn't be a deadend. Even as the intelligentsia keeps politics at arm's length, a feeling is gaining ground that it is high time that something was done to reverse the degeneration of the political system. "We forget," says mass communication expert and theatre personality Alyque Padamsee, "that intellectuals like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were up to their armpits in politics and this made an enormous impact on the politics of that era. I have been speaking at colleges urging students to vote and encourage their fellow collegians and families to do the same. Even if the educated in India are in a minority, one vote makes a difference. Well, maybe not to the election results but to our conscience. Why have our intellectuals retreated into their mouseholes?"
Indeed, as the likes of Paritosh Sen agree, intellectuals should pay heed to their conscience and provide direction to the country. "They have no choice," says the painter. "It has got to be done for the nation's sake. It is the only way out of the morass that we have got ourselves into. More and more people of integrity should join active politics. That is the only way things can improve."
But that, feels Rajendra Yadav, is easier said than done." Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru made an impact because they were very much a part of the political system. We are not and cannot hope to be in the near future. We cannot contest elections because we do not have money and muscle power," he says. "It is impossible to do anything from outside the system. To mobilise public opinion in the hope that will lead to better days will take years, and the wait, at the end of it, might not be worth it."
Whether this is plain cynicism or anguished acknowledgement of the stark truth, it is understandable why it is so difficult to believe in the future. But, mercifully, for most intellectuals, the battle will continue until a new bright sunrise of hope changes the way we look at things. Sociologist M.N. Srinivas, whose involvement in elections is more at an ideological level than at a personal one, says: "My role stops at efforts to strengthen the democratic polity. And the time for ideology has come."
But the question is: are our politicians ready for the regeneration? And are our intellectuals prepared to stand up and be counted? It is time for everybody to abandon their mouseholes and join the fight. Because no matter who wins the battle of the ballot, the nation cannot afford to lose.