MA Venkata Rao published this piece in the October 1961 issue of The Indian Libertarian magazine The edition was published amid the time when India’s frontier policy failed. M. A. Venkata Rao in “The Education Of The Electorate,” highlighted the strategy needed for winning the votes through the purview of the economic standing of the voters in order to maintain a national democratic stand.
You can read the original, unabridged version here.
The characteristics of the electorate everywhere determine the quality of democracy and its influence on beneficial or otherwise affairs. In our country today, we have substantial 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 in rural areas, spreading over several townships. To contact them would require ample funds for conveyance and great leisure. Only men of means can contemplate candidature for Lok Sabha or men favoured by parties with significant funds to “invest” in the enterprise of capturing power.
In such circumstances, the strategy to win a majority will have to consider several 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 helpful to record the outstanding features of the mind of the voters in a city, as revealed to the present writer during 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 during his contacts with individual voters, both educated and uneducated, was the surprising degree of cynicism 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 outcome of 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 he would not vote for any candidate, for all parties and candidates would be the same. They stand for their advancement, and parties only aim at power and the opportunity to exercise patronage among their 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 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. He felt that new governments would impose new tariffs to favour their groups. Whether Maharajas 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 fashion these days, and so the world goes on until the fashion changes, as in Pakistan, as we hear.”
Many 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 gives them a feeling of frustration and futility. The doctrine of the 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 the new system, except that the new men make several hypocritical claims to serve the people, but they “serve” the people at a higher cost with less justice and integrity.
The individual voter feels lost in the vast machinery and numbers involved. He does not think that his vote counts for anything.
Hence, the most significant difficulty is bringing him to the polling booth. Large proportions of the middle and 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 conveyance offer is contrary to electoral law but is more honoured in the breach than in the observance. All parties provide such convenience to the extent they can afford it. It is an open secret. If the workers of parties seek to report the malpractices of their rivals, disputes 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 cause more significant law and order disturbances than previous ones. The Congress will go all out to retain power, more significant numbers of communists will enter the fray, and the Jan Sangh men are not pacifists or timid in emergencies they are extending their influence to new areas and consolidating their hold in their original districts and States.
There is a great need to dispel the ordinary voter’s cynicism and give him a sense of purpose and importance in participation in the electoral process. Most voters complain that the candidate is remote from their lives and indifferent to their interests.
Therefore, 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, and 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 fad that there is a social and intellectual gulf between the eminent doctor and the bulk of the electorate. The ranks of voters don’t want high qualifications like M.R.C.P. etc. but like 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.
Most think not so much of the government’s general policies like socialism and five-year plans but of their individual needs. They expect members of parliament, whether of Lok Subha or of the State Assembly, to use their influence to get jobs, promotions and seats in college for 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 undoubtedly illegitimate demands on the part of voters, but they are in their minds while voting or joining a party. Corruption is condemned in the abstract, but everyone 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 for his constituents if it had been denied in any case owing to negligence or the influence of rival party men in positions of power or advantage.
One way to remove the frustration debilitating democracy at the roots today is to get the voter to keep in touch with his representative after the election. He should demand of him that he should stay in touch with his constituency and visit his constituency at intervals of the 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 the opposition’s criticisms. This contact between voters and representatives during off-session periods 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 the British voter was accessible only on election day once in four years.
But with our large populations, we cannot go back to the direct democracies of Greek days. All we can do is increase contacts and communication between primary voters and representatives through modern means of communication supplemented by increased intimacy between them during off-sessions, when direct meetings in the constituency may occur. The indirect information voters obtain through the newspapers, 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 secure their candidate’s favour. It is not the uneducated voter who is primarily responsible for the havoc done in his name and the eclipse of broader nationalist motivations during elections and in democratic governance.
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 is wrong to assume that Hindus will vote Hindus and Muslims will vote Muslims, that Brahmins will vote Brahmins and Non-brahmins, Non-brahmins 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, unsophisticated voters. It is a mistake to think that formal education confers any superiority on the graduate. The unlettered person can better understand ethical motives and react to moral appeals than the educated classes. The ignorant persons lack information about the world, but they are wise 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 teh lives, hopes, and fears of the masses counts in the electoral process. 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. All voters, whether literate or illiterate, should understand the constitution and its fundamental rights. The role of the press, the distinction of the party from government, the responsibility of Ministers, the difference between delegate and democratic member of parliament and the duty of using his best judgement–such information should be imparted to the voters. Non-party Voter’s Clubs best do it, 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 primary cells of the national democratic organism. They will take the sting out of the party boss system.
Patriotism demands that some educated persons come forward to form and develop such Voter’s Clubs all over the country.
Particular attention should be paid to removing or at least mitigating the cynicism and frustration of the individual voter.
The voter should be informed that given the country’s vastness, it is impossible to establish a direct democracy, as in the Greek City States and the Indian republics of old in the days of Chanakya and Chandragupta Maurya.
The next best thing is to have assemblies of representatives. To keep the masses manageable for business and practical discussion, it is necessary to limit their number to around 500 for the country and about 200 for the state. And the necessity has its 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 expertise instead of being gramophone records or more delegates. It is impossible to convey all the differing opinions of tens and thousands of voters. The members should listen to all ideas, form their own views, and arrive at a consensus that may include an element of value in essential aspects of the 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 his vote, the opinion of others will prevail, and he has himself to blame.
Also, the voter should refrain from selling his vote on otherwise misusing 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 sect of 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 expenses in the hope that such a person could obtain permits, quotas, and licenses that could compensate. He was also a comic poet and brought cinema stars, male and female, to gather huge audiences for him. And he succeeded in getting 45,000 votes though he hailed from a different part of the country and did not know the voters’ language!
The voter’s frustration 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.
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