FOR CIVIL society advocacy initiatives that aim at making voters demand and access information to help them make informed choices on polling day, emotive issues holding sway among the electorate is reason to redouble their efforts.
While leaders of multiple Opposition parties have said they are vexed at how issues such as drought, incomplete loan waiver for farmers and rising employment and industry crises did not impact Maharashtra’s voters in the Lok Sabha elections this summer, organisations that work to raise awareness on candidates’ suitability say overarching poll subjects such as nationalism will not be a decisive voting factor in perpetuity.
Non-partisan civil society group Mumbai Votes, which has run the ‘Informed Voter Project’ to enable informed voting across five elections starting with the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, conducts rigorous and objective candidate profile research and analysis to plug information lacunae.
Vivek Gilani of Mumbai Votes says the relevance of such initiatives could perhaps be seen as a “gymnasium” where voters “work out their civic vigilance muscle, waiting in a state of readiness”.
According to Gilani, such initiatives provide a safe haven for a collective civic consciousness that is under assault. He says, “When civil society once assertively, fearlessly holds political power in check it will require immense magnitude of work by citizens to be unremittingly vigilant.”
At Praja, which has for several years now brought out detailed “report cards” on the functioning of legislators and corporators, the conversation is around how to scale up their effort.
Director Milind Mhaske says even in the United States, emotive issues have occasionally held sway. “So even in a developed nation, voters have behaved in a not so studied manner. We shouldn’t see our own electorate’s behaviour as static, things have improved tremendously over the years,” Mhaske says.
“But two agencies need to do mass political education and awareness — schools and political parties. And neither is doing it adequately,” Mhaske says, adding that the culture of promoting understanding of politics and political power is simply absent in our school system.
“And parties are not developing their cadre through political messaging and ideology — with the exception of the Communist Party or the Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), other parties are not engaging in any political education of their own cadre.”
Aware that painstaking work on collecting, compiling and analysing data in various parameters in order to draft their report cards of candidates and elected representatives is still to be commonly accepted as the basis for voters’ rational choices, Mhaske says civil society agencies work with full knowledge of their limitations.
“We always knew what we are doing is on a small scale, we are trying to show what can be done, like a laboratory experiment on how informed voters can make rational choices, but it is the political parties that have the mandate to take it forward on a wider scale,” according to Mhaske.
Gilani says advocacy work on building awareness for genuinely participatory democracy provide a level playing field to all players in the electoral field, where every “voice” in the political spectrum speaks at the same decibel and tone – without subservience to political or administrative authority.
“Nothing has distorted this equity and hence political alternatives, including smaller parties such as the AAP, the VBA among others, can leverage these platforms to showcase their relatively ‘progessive’ agenda to a section of society, mainly the middle and upper middle classes, who have been absent or indifferent,” he says.