SHOULD DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS BE CONFERRED...OR EARNED?
Another Independence Day has passed and though the celebrations were muted this year, social media was flooded with the usual posts- the likes of which are seen only on Independence Day, Republic Day or when the general elections are being held. Self congratulatory, pat-on-the-back affirmations of us being the largest democracy in the world where the ‘true power’ rests with the people.
We are stuck in a quagmire of black money, criminal-politician nexus , apathetic media and muscle power- all of which are used to influence elections; whether it is for picking out a village pradhan, a city mayor or a Prime Minister. The problem is compounded because many are easily swayed by freebies or skilful oratory ; their lack of education or awareness rendering them unaware of the enormous social responsibility invested in them. This is not limited to the unlettered populace- a big chunk of educated, urban Indians feel that their constitutional duty ends with just voting, as opposed to voting responsibly.
Which causes one to think- we have ability tests or skill assessments to do so many things (pass a class, get into college, drive a car) but no criteria whatsoever to decide whether we are fit enough to select a government to rule the country. And because democracy was never intended to guarantee that the best man would be in charge and because there is no filter, everyone bears the consequences.
Now before you call me classist or discriminatory, let me clarify that I am not proposing the introduction of such a system immediately. That would be ridiculously stupid- even without induced barriers, millions in our country are not able to exercise their legal right to vote.
But years from now, when poverty has been largely eradicated, access to education has improved and when we can set up at least one institution that can function without political interference, maybe then. A simple test (online, offline, vocal, written or through some other medium) that can determine whether a person is mentally and sociologically capable of electing a political representative.
This is not to weed out those with extreme or radical views; they are entitled to their opinions (provided they are their own) and make decisions based on those. Also, it is not intended to disenfranchise the uneducated – even highly educated people are capable of prejudice, irrationality and idiocy. But shouldn’t a voter be able to tell which position he is electing the representative for? Shouldn’t he/she be able to identify at least two parties through their symbols? Shouldn’t they know what their candidate is promising?
This sounds radical and far-fetched and it is indeed so. In a large country like India, with a billion plus people, multiple languages, limited access to technology and other technical, social, political, logistical and economic hurdles, it seems absurd to even consider such an exercise. But all I ask is- if we can trouble people so much for disastrous projects like demonetization and roll out poorly-implemented schemes such as Aadhaar and GST across the country, why not give this a shot too? Not like the half-baked theory I have put forward but a concrete, revolutionary idea based on extensive discussions with experts, think tanks, policy makers and so on.
Because when people say they ‘can’t be bothered with politics’, when they vote just like their parents or friends, when they can be swayed with a bottle or some notes, when they look at the candidate’s surname, when they don’t vote at all- we are collectively losing a chance to make a difference and elect leaders who know they will be asked questions, who know their work is directly tied to their electoral result, and who, for solely this reason, might opt for development over hate.
Of course, this will not be a magical panacea for our society. Political parties will devise other ways to cheat the system or spread lies and people who vote for caste or money might mostly not change their opinion, but we can make it slightly tougher for them. And then there is that five per cent who might actually be persuaded to read up about the contesting candidates, who might utilise this opportunity to increase their knowledge, who might cast their vote solely with the country’s best interest at heart. Can we not give them a chance?
PS: I can almost see your thoughts- before the voters, shouldn’t politicians prove themselves capable of running for office? I agree with that fully but that is a topic for another day.
By Rajitha Menon