The schedule for the 2019 general election has been announced, and the political arena has once again been transformed into a gigantic market place. In this space political parties proceed to outbid and undercut each other, often in shocking ways, as they desperately buy a commodity called state power. Every political party pursues state power as frantically as the Knights of King Arthur searched for the Holy Grail in medieval England. This is their project and their rationale for existence. Power saturates every site of social interaction, from the household to the workplace, but state power is unique because it is a condensate of all power. The state decides whether our lives are led in good, bad or ugly ways. The holders of state power resolve what sort of opportunities are offered by society and the economy, and whether we can participate in multiple social transactions as equals.
All that’s at stake
Understandably, politicians yearn to take over the state. Some of them might even agree to sell their souls, drive a Faustian bargain so that they can acquire, possess and relish power. We are a democracy, but citizens are unable to control the possession, exercise and implementation of power by their representatives.
A disturbing question haunts the corridors of our democracy. Are representatives responsive to their constituencies, to their wants, needs and aspirations? Or do they tend to subordinate the well-being of citizens to their own lust for office? The latter is painfully evident.
Democratically elected governments can and have divided society, kept people in penury, imprisoned and tortured civil liberty activists, destroyed civil societies, and threatened war against neighbours. Overt and covert violence stalks our heels. Violence may have become the new normal in India, but there is little that is noble about violence. “Each new morn” says Macduff of war in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows Strike heaven in the face, that it resounds.”
Today, new sorrows follow us around like Mary’s little lamb because the government refuses to respect our need for a decent life, lived with dignity and in peace. Consider the way the Indian government has responded to serious economic distress in the country. Refusing to address the grim crisis in the agrarian sector which has destroyed livelihoods and driven farmers to suicide, the government decides to offer petty pocket money to the agriculturalist. Instead of transforming educational institutions, or taking on the onerous task of creating jobs with some determination, the Modi government offers pitiful reservations to graduates and postgraduates who have been forced to compete for positions below their capabilities. Worse, our government refuses to count how many Indian citizens are unemployed. It just does not acknowledge that poverty created through job losses does not only breed distress, it produces and reproduces discontent and anger, resentment and violence. Our representatives have failed us.
For when we vote, we expect that our representative government will provide the basic preconditions of a good life. We do not expect it to tap petty passions and irrational emotions through incendiary rhetoric that targets communities, regions and other countries in the name of the nation. Cynics might wonder whether elections bring about change at all, or whether the outcome results in more of the same.
Freedom from fear
Nevertheless, elections are significant. The opportunity to vote offers us choices, we can vote for the same violence that has left us with bloodied hands and torn feet. Or we can vote for a party that offers us freedom. At stake in the 2019 election are four kinds of freedoms. The first is freedom from fear, from the haunting feeling that someone, somewhere is watching how we behave, and that someone is ready to penalise us through words and deeds if we dare question the mockery that democracy gives power to the religious majority. Our own people who belong to the minority community need to be reassured that they are citizens of this country by right, and no one has the right to make them feel that they are here on sufferance. All of us have to be free from the nagging worry that our neighbourhoods will be overrun by lumpens on their monstrous motorcycles baying for blood at the drop of a hat, that citizens of India will be lynched and left to die painfully on the mud tracks of our cities and villages. Above all, we have the right to vent criticism of representatives without being assaulted by crude, sexist abuse on social media that relentlessly intrudes into our everyday lives.
The second sort of freedom we should reinstall is freedom from want. Our farmers live in precarious conditions, our working class ekes out a bare existence steeped in misery and deprivation, our children are offered insecure and low paid jobs, and our minorities live under the constant threat that their livelihoods will be snatched from them. Seventy-one years after Independence, the government should be concerned about the quality of employment it offers our people, about suitable remuneration, about lives lived with dignity, and about the self-worth that people develop when they love what they do for a living.
It is not enough that the working classes are handed out a mere pittance instead of a living wage. It is not sufficient that our people work for a mess of porridge, or that they should merely have enough to eat. It is the task of a democratic government to provide for basic preconditions — health, education, employment and a sustainable wage — that enable people to stand up and speak back to a history not of their making. This is what democracy means, not a handout here and a handout there. For this, we need to ask why should people remain poor.
The third freedom that we have to re-capture is freedom from discrimination. Ironically, upper castes have mobilised against protections provided to one of the most vulnerable groups in human history, Dalits. It is paradoxical that reservations, which are meant to secure respect for those who are doubly disadvantaged by reasons of caste and class, are offered to the upper castes, which are already over-represented in the public sphere. Reservations have become a mockery, a charade, used as a deliberate ploy to delegitimise the project of social justice.
The fourth freedom is freedom from sexual violence, for women, for men, for transgenders, and for children. India must never witness with horror and pain another child mauled, raped and mutilated as in Kathua. We must never bear witness to the ignoble spectacle of lawyers demonstrating in favour of rapists. We must never again register the horrific phenomenon of women being beaten up merely because they wish to visit their god in a temple. If India cannot secure equality, which is the reason for democracy, let us at least opt for non-discrimination, a lesser form of equality.
A constitutional right
At stake in the elections that loom large on our collective imaginations is not delegation of power to representatives, so that they can live out their sick fantasies of controlling minds and bodies. We vote to recapture and protect the freedom that earlier generations fought for so strenuously. We vote because freedom is our constitutional right and we will reclaim it.
Neera Chandhoke is a former Professor of Political Science at Delhi University