Aam aadmis in India are quite unlike their counterparts in democracies in Europe and the US. The aam aadmi cares about politics, discusses it avidly and in a variety of language, using vivid metaphors and pungent jokes, and on polling day, shows up enthusiastically in great numbers to vote. Why is this so?
Is it because the aam aadmi has faith in politicians and politics and thinks they will make life better? Evidence suggests not. Few voters in India think of politicians as public servants who enter politics to serve the country, not themselves. Politics is seen to be corrupting, the acidic drop of kanja ka tapka that curdles a whole pan of milk. Any individual who enters politics is seen to be blighted by it — or, as some paddy cultivators in Bengal put it, those who go to hell become the devil. Others described their “allergy” to politics, or called it a swamp that sucks down into its muck anyone who dips in even a toe.
Why this damning characterisation? Through 60-odd years, the aam aadmi has seen repeatedly how radically altered ordinary people became once they gained the slightest political power. Once voted in, most politicians seem to forget about the ordinary voters who put them in power. The aam aadmi sees politicians cultivating the rich and powerful instead, entering into deals of personal benefit and using public funds meant for dispensaries, roads and schools to fund their own business idea or son’s wedding.
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Some politicians themselves confirm this portrayal. When asked, one politician explained patiently that he hadn’t joined politics to be noble and honest, and that it was impossible to have principles in politics, because the nature of the game was all about furthering your own agenda at the expense of your opponent. His opponent in another party was even more unabashed, stating that he was in politics to gain something. Earlier it was his father, and now it was his turn. True, there was also give-and -take, and they offered all those who supported them a share of the spoils. But ultimately they would not and could not tolerate criticism: Agar aap hamare saath hain toh hum aapko doodh nahi kheer khilanyange, aur agar aap haamre khilaf hain toh hum aapko cheer denge (if you are with us we will give you not just milk but cream, but if you oppose us we will cream you).
No wonder then that honest aspirants to politics find that the money and complicity required by political shenanigans often simply put them off. They return to private life to retain their integrity. One man embittered by his experience redefined the nature of India’s democracy as a “government that uses people, abuses people and ruins people”.
But despite their low opinion of politicians and politics, election campaigns are exciting and meaningful events for the aam aadmi. For it is then that politicians, the khaas aadmi, are briefly humbled — their clothes crumpled in the heat and dust, their voices hoarse among the raucous crowds, their hands folded as they ask for votes, their heads bowed as they enter the humblest dwellings and listen to the angry complaints of their constituents. While no aam aadmi is fooled by this sudden humility — Netaon ke khaney aur dikhaney ke daant alag hotey hain (politicians have two sets of teeth one for eating and for showing the world) — elections at least force them to keep up appearances. During this weeks-long carnival, the fact that even the powerful can be overthrown and put out of power is a potent idea that motivates people to go out and vote. And if that involves having to vote for other rascals, well, “a thorn in the flesh can only be removed by another thorn,” as one man wryly observed.
But there are also other reasons why Indian voters, especially those in the bottom millions, show up at polling booths in such spirit and numbers. It is not just about which party will win, but the voter’s experience of voting itself. Evidence from all around the country shows that the free and fair nature of elections, magnificently maintained by the Election Commission, ensures that people who show up to vote are judged only on their identification as voters and no other criteria. So election day is the only moment, and the polling booth the only space, where it really does not matter if you are poor, a woman, a Dalit or tribal — you are treated by officials the same as any other voter. This extraordinary, brief glimpse of what equality must feel like is a powerful motivator. And as people have remarked, the same ink mark on every voter’s left index finger also has a curious levelling effect, turning it into a coveted sign of belonging.
If the significance of such a small detail may surprise us, even more surprising is the eloquence with which ordinary people are able to explain so articulately why voting is the foundational evidence of their citizenship. They stress that all Indians have a constitutional right to vote and it is therefore their duty to exercise that right. They point out that seeing their names on electoral rolls is, if nothing else, a bureaucratic reassurance that they do actually exist, so forgotten are they the rest of the time. And they need to assert their presence to the powerful, who always seems to forget about them once they have harvested their votes. By using their vote wisely, it becomes a weapon in their hands. Those who are too poor to make any other sort of offering (daan) to society or the gods also noted that mat-daan was at least free and bestowing it brought them civic virtue. It is no wonder then that election day is anticipated with a mixture of dread and excitement by all. And on the day, people all over the country do dress up and make the extra effort as they would for any other festival.
Thus, while the aam aadmi is acerbic in his opinion of politicians, he refuses to concede all of politics to their corrupt ways, to let rajneeti alone define politics. Instead, he sees clearly the wider political realm of Indian democracy, in which his own role as a citizen is in holding politicians to account, choosing his candidate wisely and, above all, turning out to do his voting duty, and thereby manifest his membership of the republic — for she too is part of politics. This is the lokniti of the aam aadmi.
Banerjee is author of ‘Why India Votes’ and is based at the London School of Economics and Political Science