January 29, 2020
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Voting To Abstain

They have the real campaigns and are close to the masses, yet they keep away from elections

Voting To Abstain
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Governance without goodness,
People seething with discontent...
It's this injustice, not the enemy,
That'll vanquish us in our own territory.

From Parashuram ki Pratiksha — Ramdhari Singh Dinkar

Tireless Hope queues up to vote for good governance yet again. But even Hope dare not expect 'goodness' in governance when it comes to India's ballot boxes. Twelve general elections have taught us that electoral politics is mostly about caste, corruption, convenient coalitions, and worse. Mostly about choosing the least unacceptable among the vote scroungers. Contenders who'd barter ideology for a ticket. Values for votes...

...And India elects 543 from among them to its House of the People. And almost expectedly, once there, they are quick to forget those who elected them. Till the next polls. When people elect them, or others like them, as their leaders. Yet again.

People, an adage goes, get the leaders they deserve. Surely, we deserve better. An opinion poll, conducted by a daily recently, placed the politician below smugglers in a list of "honest professions". Even sound bytes and headlines, that reflect public sentiment, are a measure of the contempt we feel for our leaders. "The scoundrels have reappeared. Won't vote for anyone this time, all are thieves," a village elder from Vidarbha spat into a television camera the other day. Urban views are not very different. An Indian Express editorial last week observed: "..the electorate is getting increasingly cynical about these clowns who would be kings."

Cynicism, however informed, cannot allow 'clowns' to lord over a country that has given the world some of its greatest leaders. The tradition of great leadership is, however, far from over. There still are Real Leaders who, if elected, can make a qualitative difference in Parliament just as they do in lives of the people. Leaders who have mass bases. Who are one with the common man's worries, yearn his yearnings, and breathe life into his hopes. And don't need helicopters and cavalcades to meet the masses they lead.

Heroes of Dust and Grime

So different from each other and yet they are so similar in their conviction that our land belongs to us, the people. A campaigner for adivasi self-rule, C.K. Janu, 30, born to tribal labourer parents in Kerala's Wayanad district, has nothing in common with septuagenarian Chandi Prasad Bhatt, pioneer of the Chipko movement and a Garhwal Brahmin. But they are united in their fight to preserve the people's ownership of their land.

While Janu continues her decade-long bloody struggle for the restoration of tribal land rights, Bhatt's 25-year-old pacifist activism is about people protecting their earth. While Janu plants signboards declaring hundreds of acres of reserved forest as exclusive tribal zone, Bhatt's philosophy advocates hugging trees to save them from being felled. "Only our love for our land can prevent it being ravaged," says the forest sage.

Closer to Janu's brand of militant campaigning, Andhra's Gummadi Vittal Rao alias Gaddar also upholds: "Dunne vadi de bhoomi" (land to the tiller). With a struggle and songs as his luggage, the revolutionary bard has been reaching out to the poorest, propagating rebellion against landlords for over three decades. Believer in the radical Left ideology of the People's War Group, he's better known than even NTR among Andhra's rural masses.

The issue, for these leaders, is the right to own and nourish one's land. Even to lay down one's life for it. Like 45-year-old Medha Patkar and her band of followers, who were ready to drown over displacement in Jalsindhi a month ago. Her 15-year-old protest is against the dam over Narmada and development that ignores people. Says an impassioned Patkar: "The government is alienating people from their own land. It is the biggest landlord."

Not just land, these crusaders are as possessive about the waters. Priest-turned-crusader Thomas Kocherry, 59, has been rallying for over 11 lakh fisher-families along the Kerala coastline for 20 years. Says he: "The ownership of waterbodies should be with traditional fishing communities. We don't want mncs to fish in our waters." His struggle for sustainable fishing practices continues even after the government withdrew plans to open the seas to foreign companies.

They have changed things. With only the Gujarat dairy farmer's milk as starting capital, Verghese Kurien helped weave a cooperative and a brand called Amul that today has an asset base worth Rs 2,300 crore. The former National Dairy Development Board chairperson reveals the Big Idea behind it all: "The simple dairy farmer should not be denied his rightful share by the government, market or middlemen." In Gujarat's Anand, where it all happened, "Kurien is the name of a god." A god of prosperity.

Much like 58-year-old Anna Hazare, who has changed Ralegaon village in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, reeling under aridity and alcoholism. This "ideal village" was born out of the Hazare formula—drip irrigation, family planning, community labour and a ban on grazing, tree felling and alcohol. Says resident Avinash Dharmadhikari: "He is a ray of hope, selfless and saintly."

Yet another saint-like figure, meanwhile, shares life with leprosy patients in an ashram at Kasravad in Madhya Pradesh. Octogenarian Baba Amte continues with his Sardar Sarovar agitation and tribal uplift, despite acute cervical spondilytis. "But, my emotions are not dead," he quips, "I have seen the fire in the eyes of youth as they stood neck-deep in water at Jalsindhi."

Writer-activist Mahasweta Devi treasures this spirit. It has made her a tireless champion of the tribal cause. A lesson she has learnt from her quarter-century long involvement with the 15,000-strong Kheria-Sabar denotified tribe in West Bengal's benighted Purulia district. "Just look at the ground, follow your ideals, think small, do your job, don't expect personal returns and there is hope."

That people are willing to cling on to this hope is amply evident. In a country where politics uses communalism to boost a flaccid national ego, 20 million people across 100,000 hamlets are fervent followers of Pandurang Shastri Athavale. He preaches a casteless and classless society. According to the tenets of his Swadhyaya (self-study) philosophy, religion and reform are a two-pronged strategy that can change people and the nation.

However, the nation frequently excludes its people. Charismatic campaigner Aruna Roy, 53, discovered this through the nitty-gritty of her activism in Rajasthan's Devdungri village. Having quit the bureaucracy in 1975 to participate in people's movements, Roy soon realised how bureaucratese prevents information from filtering down to the citizens. "While rallying for workers' rights, we realised that we were continually being denied access to government records. Nothing, it seems, is transparent. As if anything that enters sarkari files becomes a national secret." The Right to Information campaign has now spilled out from Rajasthan into the national consciousness.

Shunning The House of People

How long will vital energies be sapped by skirmishes between people and their representatives? Why don't these crusaders scream our voices within the government? Why don't they contest elections?

Mahasweta Devi minces no words: "The political system is rotten to the core. It's very difficult to isolate the anti-social from the politician. I stay away from a lot of things, and one of them is politics." Political weariness is not exclusively Mahasweta's affliction. C.K. Janu is as fed up: "If you join the system, you get gobbled up by it." An ailing Janu, who heads a splintered adivasi movement as she's lost much of her support-base to mainstream parties, ekes out her living as a tailor. Avers she: "You can't retain your individuality in a political party. It is a compromise with those in power."

Patkar too believes that entering the political arena will ultimately lead her to compromise her values. "Present politics and its corrupt culture is one reason why I don't want to contest elections." She, however, isn't removed from politics. In fact, she realises her movement is actually another form of it. She believes in "our politics", which considers the people, their land, their rights, their issues. "When electoral politics comes our way, we deal with it on the basis of our analyses," she says.

For Gaddar, elections are best left to the morally decrepit. "Someone else casts our votes by the time we reach the polling booths. I know I'm popular, but they won't let anyone vote for me." The failure of democracy, claims the bard, is evident in the fact that he wasn't allowed to organise a cultural programme in Chittoor, chief minister Chandrababu Naidu's hometown, despite high court directives. Asks an angry Gaddar: "Have we been able to implement the 'one man, one vote' dictum?"

Calmer responses come in too. But they're no less biting. Chandi Prasad Bhatt equates electoral politics with a mohjaal (web of desire). "To keep at it, one gradually loses one's identity in the million threads the web weaves," he philosophises. Ramdas Gandhi, ailing Athavale's aide, provides the latter's views on the subject: "Dadaji feels politics does not allow for the feeling of 'We.' Only selfless grassroots work changes lives."

Kocherry points out his "mass base" does not ensure victory in elections: "And even if I become prime minister who will support me to enact meaningful laws?" Kurien too shows no interest in jumping into the poll fray. Usefully employed these days, he has neither "money, muscle power nor the absence of conscience that seem to be the prerequisites for electoral office." Moreover, entrepreneurs, he feels, don't have much room in politics.

Baba Amte is the only one who manages a laugh at the suggestion that he should contest elections. What he says though is not amusing at all: "Being in politics is like prostituting oneself. Saffron turns Red, Red turns Saffron. A victory will change nothing, but a defeat will mean a setback to the cause I espouse." And that's a fear that seems to be keeping many a worthy contender out of our ballot sheets. As Hazare candidly says: "The political and social dynamics of our country are such that people start viewing you and your crusades with suspicion the minute they know you are planning to contest elections. This outweighs decisions to associate with party politics."

Yet, many of these leaders are acutely aware that civic movements cannot be divorced from mainstream politics. Hazare and Bhatt say they will back people with clean track records. Kocherry advocates that people's power should usurp State power.

And while they do fight for this radical change in electoral politics, Patkar emphasises, "We really do not under-estimate its role. Strengthening the voice of civil society and setting right the power relations between it and the State is also politics; and we are already in it." Roy opines that people's movements are already ringing in a more robust and participatory democracy. "First, we've to change our expectations from our leadership. Only then will time come for changing leadership," she says. "We are already discussing whether movements can even get what they demand without participating in mainstream politics."

But the final decision lies with the people. And sometimes people fail themselves. Malladi Subbamma, 60, who spearheaded the anti-arrack movement in Andhra Pradesh, did contest the Lok Sabha elections as an independent candidate. She lost. "I spent just Rs 4,000. Where is the money to fight?"

It's not just about money and muscle-power but also public perception of electoral politics that would keep the activist-leaders from electoral triumphs, argues Prof. Imtiaz Ahmed, political sociologist at jnu. He explains: "The Indian voter does not want loosely hanging candidates, more so in these days of coalitions. Traditionally independents have never fared well in elections. In the average voter's mind, politics is linked with party processes." Having said so, the academic does suggest a corrective. The creation of a non-party political platform to field able candidates.

People's initiatives have taken on this responsibility already. Lokayan, a forum committed to issues of democracy, has been working on evolving non-party-political processes and non-centralised power development, since 1980. Its founder-member Vijay Pratap says that the forum is committed to the consolidation and radicalisation of democracy through a dialogue between policy planners, social and political activists and concerned citizens. "The task at hand is to examine the institutional and ideological dead-ends we have reached vis-a-vis the delivery of the democratic system. To work out perspectives for complete social transformation."

But will these crusaders, who have always been anti-establishment, lend themselves to the establishment? Their antipathy for current politics apart, will they be comfortable at all walking the aisles of the Lok Sabha? Filmmaker Mrinal Sen, who makes no secret of his initial discomfiture at being nominated to the Rajya Sabha, appreciates the difficulties of slipping into a parliamentarian's role: "Passionate parliamentarians are more devoted to their parties than to causes. I bet most of them won't make good activists. Similarly, activists might not make good parliamentarians."

But then how many 'good' parliamentarians do we have anyway? They fight violently in assemblies, indulge in vicious name-calling in Lok Sabha sessions, indulge in thumping theatrics before the speaker and stage protest walkouts at their whim. Surely we deserve better. And, maybe, we even deserve goodness in governance.

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