Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Your vote does not count

[This follows the previous two articles that I wrote, ‘You did not vote!’, ‘You did not vote!’: Part II]


Once again its election time (in Karnataka) and there is a lot of hoopla from Indian media, Election Commission and various outfits, like ‘Volunteer for Better India’, who are urging people to come out and vote in large numbers.  Times of India, 5 May 2013, writes ‘it’s time to get out and vote’, and has started a campaign called ‘Vote Maadi’.  The Election Commission has set itself a target of achieving 75% turnout (from the previous 65%).


One Kannada Actress writes in Times of India, 6 May 2013: 


Felt like a responsible citizen after casting my vote.  People should vote for better leadership and government, and stop complaining about bad governance.
[Shweta Srivastav, Kannada Actress]


And a film director writes: 

People who haven’t voted have no right to complain about the new government.  In fact, they have missed out on a great opportunity to bring about a change in the administration.
[Kavitha Lankesh, Film Director]


There is a misconception that is being propagated wildly in India that voting in huge numbers will somehow bring good governance.  And therefore the myth, that to be a responsible citizen one has to vote.  I argued in the first two articles that every citizen has a right to criticize the leadership and the government, and that includes those citizens who have not voted.  In fact, democracy cannot be just about elections that come every five years, but it should be seen as a continuous process where the citizen continues to play a role – not limiting it to voting on the election-day. 

A young engineering student writes: 


I voted this time because I feel it’s my duty to do so… I am confident my vote will not go wasted. [Sushma K, Engineering student, Dasarahalli]


Oh, well, the truth of the matter is that her vote doesn’t count. 


Let’s face the harsh reality.  All these gimmicks where the activists, the media, and various outfits, urge voters to come out and vote in huge numbers do not matter at all.  Just because more people vote, pushing the voter turnout from 65% to 75%, it does not lead to better governance, it does not improve our political system, it does not bring in better candidates.  Our political system will continue to remain the same.  That’s the bitter truth, though most Indians may not like to admit it. 


One famous actor from Karnataka writes:

At least on poll day, we should take a break from work and vote.  Bangalore should record 90% voting and set a model for other cities.  Unfortunately, this is not happening.  [Upendra, Kannada Actor]


It is naiveté of Indians to believe that voting in high numbers will somehow result in better governance or selection of a better candidate.  In fact, there is absolutely no correlation between a high turnout in a constituency and the governance in that region or the kind of candidate it selects.   If ever, we can easily see some examples which suggest that higher voter turnout can also vote in the most corrupt leaders.   


The recent by-elections of 2012 in Andhra Pradesh saw one of the highest voter turnouts.  While it is around 65% as an average in the country for State Assembly elections, these elections saw nearly 80% voter turnout. A constituency called Kovur in Andhra Pradesh saw a turnout of whopping 84%.  Compare this to the recent elections in Uttar Pradesh which threw a surprise win of Samajwadi Party ousting Mayawati’s BSP - the turnout was only 59%.  


Even in some of the most thriving democracies, like United States, the voter turnout is never high.  It was 57.5% in 2012 presidential elections, and it was 57.1% when it elected Barack Obama the first time in 2008, and it was only 50% when it elected George Bush the first time in 2000, and it was 55% in 1992 when it elected Bill Clinton.  In fact, the highest voter turnout in United States in the last hundred years was 63% in 1960 when it elected JF Kennedy for the first time.  


In a good democracy, lower turnout does not result in bad governance.  If that was indeed true, United States which sees approximately 55% in voter turnout for presidential elections should see worst governance, and yet is one of the most accountable democracies on the planet.


And what happened when there was 80% voter turnout in 2012 elections in Andhra Pradesh?  The people voted for one of the most corrupt politician and his party.  YS Jaganmohan Reddy and his YSRCP won 16 out of 19 State Assembly seats and 1 out of 1 Lok Sabha seats.   YS Jagan is one of the most tainted politicians in India where his assets grew by hundred fold in one term when his father was the Chief Minister.  He is currently under investigation by CBI for various frauds and scams.


Clearly, the above example from AP by-elections shows that a higher voter turnout does not result in better candidates.   So, why do Indians continue to delude themselves into thinking that voting in huge numbers brings in better governance? 


The problem can be summarized in an article in TOI which says:


In our parliamentary setup, the politicians holding office has 1,826 days to have his say; the voter has just one.


Therein lies the problem! 


The problem of Indians is this thinking that we have only one day to decide on the fate of our political system.  By pushing ourselves into thinking that the election-day is the only day we can participate in our democracy, and thereby absolving ourselves of the responsibility for the rest of time, we tend to focus on urging people to vote in large numbers, thereby expecting a miracle, which is not bound to work.  It is like students who do not study or pay attention to the studies for a whole year, but somehow believe that praying to their family deity on the exam day would get them better marks. 


Indians should admit that a high voter turnout does not change ground realities.  So go ahead and tell yourself this: Your vote does not count.


The problem with Indian political system is not whether Indians vote in large numbers or not.  The problem lies elsewhere and we Indians do not want to see the problem square in the eye.  Instead of trying to find the real solution, we are just wish-washy about it, trying to seduce ourselves into thinking that we just have to show up one day, at the election booth, and vote; and that this simple act will somehow create a large miracle wherein our political system will suddenly become more accountable and less corrupt.


So, what is the problem with Indian politician system? And why doesn’t voting in large numbers is not going to change it?


Candidates are not very different from each other as most forget their promises to citizens once the election is over. 
[P Jayaram, 55-year-old, KR Puram.]

The problem the voters face across India is that they don’t have much choice in selecting a candidate.  They are given a choice of four of five corrupt men standing in elections representing major political parties.  So, the voter chooses a candidate not based on how good or how bad the candidate is, but based on which political party he belongs to, which caste or religion he belongs to, etc.


I tend to call India a demautocracy, a word that I coined after witnessing the politics of Andhra Pradesh.  It means that we Indians are lulled into thinking India is a democracy when it actually works like an autocracy.  


Let’s try to understand what this means:


Imagine a country where there is a dictator.  The dictator holds elections every five years to make the people believe that they have some kind of power, when in fact they don’t.   In each constituency the common man is given a choice of three candidates that the dictator selects - they are his stooges and his loyal dogs.  The people have no means of choosing their candidates.  On the election-day, the entire nation stands in line to vote.  They have to choose one of these three candidates.  It doesn’t really matter who they choose, because the loyalty of these candidates is not towards the people, but to the dictator who has given him the ticket. 


Therefore, no matter how many times these people vote, no matter how high is the voter turnout, the elected leader will always remain loyal to the dictator, and therefore it does not actually result in a democracy, though there are elections every five years.  This is very similar to the problem India faces.   Instead of single dictator here, we have two or three political dynasties putting their candidates.  The loyalty is towards the political dynasty which gave him the ticket, not the people who voted for him.  


NR Narayana Murthy, Infosys Founder and Chairman Emeritus, writes:


This was an opportunity to indicate your desire for better governance.  I want my candidate to be honest and competent, someone who would be here in the constituency and work for its improvement.


The reality is this – you are in no position to indicate your desire for better governance even when the voter turnout is 90% if you have no choice in selection of the candidate.  And yet, naïve Indians urge themselves to come out and vote, in droves, stand in long lines to vote those candidates who are not accountable to the people but loyal to the party bosses.  Aided by the media outfits, Indians lull themselves into thinking that voting in large numbers will somehow change the character of the candidates.  Sixty years of Indian democracy has shown otherwise.


The problem with Indian democracy is that we have reduced the citizen participation to just the election-day, excusing him from the responsibilities after that.   The Indian political system has created a self-contained biosphere where only the corrupt survive while the non-corrupt are weeded out.  People’s intervention every five years is like an abrupt external interrupt, like a comet or asteroid hitting the earth, but the essential governing function of the biosphere, the survival of the corrupt, continues to be the same. 


To understand why all politicians, barring some exceptions like AK Antony, become corrupt, we can listen to a story.


Ramesh dreams on doing something for his people.  So he wants to become the MLA of his region.  He decides to join the Purple Party.  Now, the Purple Party is managed by the Party Boss who gets to decide on the candidates for each constituency in the state.  To become the MLA candidate, Ramesh has to deposit 5 Crores into the party fund.  Only then will he will get the ticket, and then party will support him with funds for the elections.  Either Ramesh has to get these 5 Crores himself or he can get it from many supporters who are quite willing to lend that money provided they are conferred favors later.  Once Ramesh becomes the MLA, these lenders will expect the favors.  Also, the Party Boss has an expectation of 10 Crores from him for the party fund.  If he doesn’t give that money, he won’t be the candidate for the next election.   So, the vicious cycle starts.


There is a continual race between the MLAs to be in favor with Party Boss to get the ticket for next term.  The MLAs and MPs in India are not accountable to the people of the constituency but to the party boss, the party dynasty, the first family, etc.  Hence, the demautocracy! 


Every five years, we see a silly spectacle in Tamil Nadu.  There is a beeline of subservient men, standing in a long line, waiting to see Jayalalita.  Once they approach her, they immediately fall on her feet, prostrating on the ground, trying to win her favor, showing their loyalty like a dog, telling her that they will do anything upon her command, if she gives him the ticket. 


That’s the problem we face as Indians, not whether we vote 55% or 65% or 75%, or 90%.

So what is the solution?


What India needs is intra-party democracy or internal party democracy, in which the selection of the candidate, election of the party leader, and membership to a political party, are made democratic.  Unless this happens, India will continue to be a demautocracy – an autocracy pretending to be democracy.  Each election will be a sham, because the candidates don’t seem to change, they continue to remain corrupt, and Indian people will continue to be helpless. 

There are many nations on the planet that are following intra-party democracy or internal party democracy.  It is either mandated by the Constitution or managed by an external organization like Election Commission.  Internal party democracy has essentially three features, and an extra feature.   Those three features are: selection of the candidate, selection of the party leader, and enrolment of party members.  The extra feature is legal and transparent management of political party funds.

Internal party democracy is one of the key ingredients of any thriving democracy, and yet India has failed to adopt it, and therefore we continue to see the flaws in our political system. 

What are the problems we see in Indian democracy?

1. Indian politicians are not accountable to the people
2. Indian political parties have become political dynasties
3. Indian political leaders do not provide an effective government to its people
4. Indian citizens are unable to participate in politics and policy making
5. Indian politicians are corrupt, incompetent and above the law

It can be easily show that Internal Party democracy will address each of these issues quite effectively.

[Continued… as ‘How Internal Party Democracy will better India’]


  1. this article holds mirror to the sad state of affairs that the citizens of this country face. most of the informed voters( ones that are not sold out to cash/liquor) try to choose one that is a lesser devil. the section 49-0 is also not incorporated in the ballot/ EVM and if it is opted out thorough the booth officer the secrecy of the ballot is lost and apparently 'no-vote' does not affect the candidates

  2. Excellently written article... this article shows how pathetic situation we are in as a citizen... Our democracy has given us right to vote but the political parties in our country making us force to choose them... that means citizens of this country are casting their vote by force not by choice,but lack of choices...
    But I really doubt that if a good educated, honest, not corrupted, having the will to serve the people in realistic way.. If at all contested in elections do we as citizen of this country will support him and vote for him?

    One change must come in the political system is that if a party gets into power through promises made by them through party's manifesto... If the party in power fails to convert the manifesto's promises into real ones then there should be provisions in the legal spectrum to screw the party chiefs and its polit beauro members... For not fulfilling the promises they made..


  3. A well explicated analysis of the problem India is facing. The solution suggested, however, is meretricious at best. Internal party democracy is as easily subverted as the broader parliamentary kind. The author has cited the US as an example of a robust internal selection mechanism leading to 'accountable' government. This is, quite simply, an illusion. The systems of Primaries & Caucuses in the US, by which candidates are chosen by delegates elected by the populace at large & not by high command, has become merely a mechanism by which big business casts its shadow on the electoral process. CPACs & SuperPACs, which raise millions of dollars in campaign funds for certain candidates, are the key determiners of which candidates are nominated. These Political Action Committees are, of course, bankrolled by Corporate America. So the power of nominating candidates- all major party candidates at least- now rests with the big business. Needless to say, Congressmen vote for the interests that bankrolled their campaigns. India will probably reach this stage of 'democracy'too- where corruption is streamlined and the profits flow not to small-time gangster MLAs and their regional & national patrons but directly to the corporations that ultimately control the wealth of nations. The streamlining of the trickle-up effect is well on its way.

  4. I think the article has done very good qualititative analysis but a bit naive in telling of options to people. Please look for section 49-0 in the constitution by which you can register a choice to not vote (this is not EVM yet). But as per statistics available from ECI this is hardly exercised. If you find no one suitable choose the 49-0 section. Agreed that section does not clearly specify what will happen if majority exercised that option. But then believe in the International Pressure, challenging of elections from loosing candidates will all happen and media warfare will make a progress. PLEASE at least exercise 49-0 is you so wish BUT VOTE GIVE DEMOCRACY a CHANCE do not write-off


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