September 21, 2020
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Who Votes?

In the US and Britain, it is essentially the poor who fail to register a vote. In India, the poor traditionally vote in numbers. What explains this?

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Who Votes?

With Assembly elections due in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry, it is perhaps useful to reflect on the non-voters of democracy. Who are those who choose to disfranchise themselves?

There is a dramatic difference between electoral abstention in India and in the West. In the US and Britain, it is essentially the poor who fail to register a vote. In India, the poor traditionally vote in numbers. It is celebrated as something of a minor festival, and the image of people standing patiently in line under a burning sun, often dressed in their modest best, offers a stark contrast to those who stay at home. For in India, it is the rich who fail to join the long queues at polling stations.

Is there any significance in this differential abstention in ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries? What — if any — is the relationship between the rich of India and the poor of the Western world, that it appears to unite them in indifference towards the hard-won right to electoral self-expression?

In the West, if the poor desert the polls, this is because they feel that no matter how they vote, nothing will change in their favour. Fatalism — a quality traditionally not associated with the West — is the dominant response. What difference will it make? Who is going to listen to us? What can we do about it? In India, the rich feel secure in their belief that, whatever happens, their interests are not going to be seriously jeopardised. It turns out that both sets of abstainers withhold their vote for similar reasons — a perceived impossibility —or undesirability — of change.

It seems the wealthy of India scorn to vote in spite of being vastly outnumbered by the poor. If a privileged minority finds it unnecessary to cast its ballot, does this suggest that democracy fails to enfranchise everyone equally? For if it did, surely the hundreds of millions of people who live on less than a dollar a day would be in permanent control of the country. That this is certainly not the case suggests a serious flaw in the democratic system, for who would vote for her or his continuing impoverishment, if it were possible to seize power merely by making a mark against a name or symbol representative of the majority?

The Indian poor retain an innocence in these matters, for they have not been through the ‘development’ process of their better-off, though still relatively poor, peers in the West. The have-nots in the West have become cynical, since they, too, until the fairly recent past, were also in the majority. And when that majority was a turbulent and assertive working class, they certainly did pose a threat to the possessing classes. Now the poor have become a minority in the West, this is no longer the case. Those who have something to lose, the ‘haves’ continue to vote, if only for historical reasons. They were, until the day before yesterday, menaced by those variously described as the masses, the poor, the working class.

The rich of India have known no such threat. The enduring hierarchies of caste and the mutations of class have rarely made the rich forfeit a good night’s sleep. Communal strife has from time to time laid waste lives, but economic power has never slipped from the firm grasp of those who wield it. Wealth resides so comfortably with them that it is reluctant to descend to the humble and impoverished; and this is regarded, by rich and poor alike, as part of the immutable realities of life.

Of course, all politicians in India are bound to refer to plight of the aam admi, and to promise that he (and presumably, by association, his female relatives) will be the first priority of whatever administration they form. Instead, the super-rich get richer, the already well-to-do improve their position and the middle class continues to expand. Globalisation has only given a further impulse to the unalterabilty of ancient and semi-sacred laws that segregate rich from poor. Everyone knows that politicians are unlikely to modify the distribution of rewards, and the vote of the rich minority, light as thistledown in the majestic weight of the global market, will make no difference to this benign dispensation.

The poor, on the other hand, retain faith in their own majoritarian power, and the perpetual renewal of hope drives them to express their electoral preference, even when this is negated by crime, corruption, the cult of personality, the fragmentation of parties and the dissolution of ideology.

The poor of the West entertain no such illusion; but despite their reduced minority status, they know they are at least less badly off than those whose plight is brought to their attention each day by TV — multitudes displaced by floods and earthquakes, or scratching the bare earth amongst the withered stalks of drought, walking hours in the hot sun in search of water or fuel, children suffering from waterborne disease in the rivulets of waste running in crooked channels through city slums. The iconography of global misery has an important function in the West, for it buys the acquiescence of the poor, since they know that, however disadvantaged, they are protected from the miseries that scythe down the poorest of the earth.

The poor of India have yet to receive instruction that politics is not economics, and that the franchise liberates a great deal less than they imagine.

So it is that different groups fail to take advantage of the privilege that is democracy, although for the same reason: a conviction that everything in the world is in its place, that rich and poor occupy separate moral spaces, and that no ballot-box is going to alter this fundamental condition of life. Who would not wish to extend the joyous dance of democracy to everyone on earth, since it is guaranteed to change so little in this, the best of all possible worlds?

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