The following piece was originally published in the October 1961 edition of the Indian Libertarian Magazine. The author, M.A. Venkata Rao deconstructs Indian democracy vis-a-vis the relationship between voters and representatives. He emphasises the need for greater liason between representatives and their constituents, among other things.
The characteristics of the electorate everywhere determines the quality of democracy and its actual influence on affairs beneficial or otherwise. In our country today, we have very large constituencies consisting of voters given political rights on an adult basis irrespective of property, education and sex. For the Lok Sabha, we have constituencies running into lakhs of voters and in rural areas, they are spread over several townships. To contact them would require ample funds for conveyance and ample leisure. Only men of means can contemplate candidature for Lok Sabha or men favoured by parties with large funds to “invest” in the enterprise of capturing power.
The strategy to be adopted to win a majority in such circumstances will have to take into account a number of psychological factors even where sufficient funds are secured. The strategy depends on the psychology and economic standing of the voters as well as their scatter over a large area. It would be useful to record the outstanding features of the mind of the voters in a city as revealed to the present writer in the course of his campaign for a seat in Lok Sabha in the last elections. They will resemble similar electoral districts in other parts of the country in urban constituencies
One of the outstanding impressions left on the writer’s mind in the course of his contacts with individual voters both educated and uneducated was the surprising degree of cynicism that they displayed. They said frankly that in their deliberate opinion, one candidate was as good or as bad as another and that parties made little difference to the final outcome in good administration! One of the educated voters, a prominent lawyer, cut the candidate’s appeal short with the curt remark “Stop that stuff. All parties make promises and claim to be better than their rivals! But I am voting for you as an individual because I know you. We want informed and reliable persons in Parliament”
Another graduate said that he would not vote for any candidate at all, for all parties and candidates would have the same in effect. Thev stand for their own personal advancement and parties only aim at power and the opportunity for exercising patronage among their own supporters. A cigarette and pan vendor asked “Why should we vote for you to enable you to become one of the ‘high and mighty’, travelling to and from Delhi First Class? We shall not see your face after the elections and we shall remain as uncared for as ever”!
A farmer asked whether he or his party would reduce taxes. He answered the question himself and said that no government would do so. In fact, he felt that new governments would impose new taxes in order to favour their own groups. Whether Maharajahs or elected Ministers, there is no respite from tax burdens to the farmers and other producers. And so, these elections are a costly farce. “People’s governments are in the fashion these days and so the world goes on until the fashion changes, as in Pakistan, as we hear.”
It is clear that a large number of voters of all ranks feel helpless and ineffective in the democratic system. Their vote coming at long intervals and giving no control to them over the representatives ultimately chosen to govern the country give them a feeling of frustration and futility. The doctrine of people’s government, of the sovereignty of the people does not enthuse them. It makes no difference in their lives.. The class of representatives and the rulers chosen by them to form Ministries become a new class to take the place of the old white bureaucrats. In the exercise of power, they do not find any difference between the old and new system, except that a number of hypocritical claims are made by the new men to serve the people but they “serve’ the people at greater cost and with less justice and integrity.
The individual voter feels lost in the vast machinery and numbers involved, he does not feel that his individual vote counts for anything. Hence there is the greatest difficulty in bringing him to the polling booth. Large proportions of the middle classes and the educated lower middle classes enjoy the holiday given to offices and factories and spend it in recreation or mid-day siesta or visiting relatives and friends. Only a few can be persuaded to take the trouble to vote if a conveyance is furnished. Such offer of conveyance is contrary to electoral law but it is more honoured in the breach than in the observance. All parties furnish such convenience to the extent they can afford. It is an open secret. If the workers of parties seek to report the malpractices of their rivals, squabbles and fights often break out. Even the breaking of heads and murders are not out of the reckoning.
The coming elections are likely to engender more bitter feelings and to cause greater disturbances of law and order than previous ones. The Congress will go all out to retain power, larger numbers of communists will enter the fray and the Jana Sangh men are not pacifist or timid in emergencies and they are extending their influence to new areas and consolidating their hold in their original districts and States.
There is great need to dispel the cynicism of the ordinary voter and to give him a sense of purpose and importance in participation in the electoral process. Most of the voters complain that the candidate is remote from their lives and is indifferent to their interests. It is important therefore that parties should take care to nominate candidates who have a sense of rapport with the bulk of the voting people in the constituency
The other day, a Swatantra party organiser was boasting that a high official, a director of medical services, a doctor of wide popularity during his term of service would be given a party ticket. He was confident that he would sweep the polls. He may, but he has to reckon with the fact that there is a social and intellectual gulf between the eminent doctor and the bulk of the electorate. The ranks of voters do not want high qualifica!ions like M.R.C.P. etc. but want a person who identifies himself with them, with their joys and sorrows and their grievances and is willing to give time and energy to act as an effective liaison between them and the ranks of government.
In fact, most of them are thinking not so much of the general policies of government like socialism and five year plans but of their individual needs. They expect members of parliament, whether of Lok Sabha or of the State Assembly to use their influence to get jobs and· promotions and seats in college to their sons and sons-in-law and nephews! Or they want them to assist in the securing of trade licences or quotas or permits, if they are businessmen. These are no ‘doubt illegitimate demands, on the part of voters but they are in their mind while voting or joining a party. Corruption is condemned in the abstract but every one seeks to get a more than equal share in the loaves and fishes of office! Of course, there are genuine cases where the representative is expected to secure justice to his constituents if it had been denied or any case owing to negligence or owing to the influence of rival party men in positions of power or advantage.
One way to remove the sense of frustration debilitating democracy at the roots today in our midst is to get the voter to keep in touch with his representative after the election. He should demand of him that he should keep in touch with his constituency and that he should visit his constituency in the intervals of parliamentary sessions and inform his supporters and others of what was taking place in the legislatures.
He should explain the policies of the party in power and of the criticisms of the opposition. It is this contact between voter and representative during off-session periods that creates a sense of reality in parliamentary government in the multitude of voters. During sessions, voters should communicate by post with their candidate in the legislature. On important occasions, they can send delegations to him to explain local reactions to Bills on the anvil of parliament.
Rousseau foresaw this difficulty in representative democracy. He said that the British voter was free only on election day once in four year. But with our large populations, we cannot go back to the direct democracies of Greek days. All we can do is to increase contacts and communication between primary voter and representative through modern means of communication. Supplemented by increased intimacy between them during off-sessions, when direct meetings in the constituency may take place. The indirect information obtained by voters through the newspapers and photographs and radio can acquire direct face-to-face primary, personal character and vitality during these exchanges between voters and representatives.
The second snag in the electoral process that any candidate comes up against is the fact of caste. It is natural for voters of any caste to feel a kinship with a representative of their own caste and to vote for him. But it has been the writer’s experience that in this matter, it is the candidate and the party managers who are the greater sinners against nationalism and democracy. They deliberately appeal to caste feelings where they help to secure the favour of their candidate. It is not the uneducated voter who is primarily responsible for the havoc done in his name and for the eclipse of broader nationalist motivations during elections and in the democratic governance ,generally.
It has been found that where an appeal is made straight to the national and democratic consciousness of the people, caste barriers have been crossed to a considerable and. encouraging extent. The present writer received a few hundred votes even from Muslims, after a straight appeal, in a single speech in a predominantly Muslim locality! It ls wrong to assume that Hindu wiil vote Hindu and that Muslim will vote MusIim, that Brahmin will vote Brahmin and Non-brahmin, Non-brahmin and so on. It is the sacred duty of the candidate and his supporting party not to appeal to sectarian motives but to have faith in human nature and the higher feelings of nationalism and democracy even in uneducated and unsophisticated voters. It is a mistake to think that formal education confers any superiority on the graduate. The unlettered person can understand ethical motives better and generally reacts to ethical appeals better than the educated. The ignorant persons lack information about the world but they are shrewd Judges of character and can judge who is a better representative to speak for them in parliament. The feeling of participation in a human and classless way with the lives and hopes and fears of the masses is what counts in the electoral process and this can be conveyed to the uneducated more easily than doctrines regarding democracy.
But the voter also needs some basic information to vote intelligently and to have the right expectations about democratic government. The constitution and the fundamental rights should be understood by all voters whether literate or illiterate. The role of the press, the distinction of party from government, the responsibility of Ministers, the difference between delegate and democratic member of parliament and the duty of voting using his best judgment. Such information should be imparted to the voters. It is best done by non-party Voter’s Clubs, one for each Assembly constituency, which ought to develop into a primary face-to-face association, cutting across wealth, office, birth, education and political power. Such Clubs run on a non-party basis should develop into basic cells of the national democratic organism. They will take the sting out of the party boss system.
Patriotism demands that some educated persons should come forward to form and develop such Voter’s Clubs all over the country. Particular attention should be paid to remove or at least mitigate the cynicism and frustration of the individual voter. The voter should be informed that in view of the vastness of the country, it is impossible to establish a direct democracy, as in Greek City States and in the Indian republics of old in the days of Chanakya and Chandragupta Maurya.
The next best thing is to have assemblies of representatives and in order to keep the assemblies manageable for business and effective discussion, it is necessary to limit their number to around 500 for the country as a whole and 200 for the state. And the necessity has its own advantages to countervail the disadvantage, namely we can have a selection of the abler among the rank and file who will act as representatives to think for the people and develop an expertise instead of being gramaphone records for more delegates. It is also impossible to convey all the differing opinions of tens of thousands of voters. The members should listen to aU opinions and· form his own views and arrive at a consensus that may include an element of value,. hi. “important aspects of the matter under discussion.
The voter should be informed that he should regard the vote as an element of sovereignty which he should put into action as in sacred duty by the nation. He should not disregard it as of no avail. Avail or no avail, he should use his vote as a matter of duty. Every people obtain the government they deserve and if the voter does not exercise their vote, the opinion of others will prevail and he has himself to blame. Also the voter should never sell his vote or otherwise misuse it. He should form the habit of using it in favour of the best candidate offering himself for election, best to represent the constituency as a whole and not a section of it, not a sect or caste or kinship group or the following of a local leader who has become prominent on other grounds.
A candidate from a high family in the last elections stood as an independent for the Lok Sabha and was supported by the communist party. His only claim was that he could see Pandit Nehru at any time of the day without a formal engagement for an interview! A business magnate paid his election expense in the hope that such a person could obtain permits and quotas and licenses which could compensate him for his outlay many times over! The candidate was also a sort of comic poet and brought cinema stars, male and female, to gather huge audiences for him. And be did succeed in getting 45,000 votes though he hailed from a different part of the· country and did not know the language of the voters!
The frustration of the voter could be overcome by pointing to the opportunities for rising for them in the local bodies which they could later use as stepping stones for the Lok Sabha or Assembly. Participation in Voter’s Clubs will restore the human touch and fill the void to a great extent.