February-March  2004 
Year 10    No.96

Cover Story

Empty ritual

Following years of unfulfilled promises after every general election, Indiaís people look beyond its politicians for real solutions to their problems

By GN Devy

A country getting ready for the general elections is in some ways like a person getting ready to visit a temple. There is for him or her yet another opportunity to say a prayer and ask for a wish: prosperity, peace, progress, growth, development, employment, care and consideration, happiness. No man who ever prayed asked for calamities, curses and crisis. One knows, of course, that the prayers are not going to amount to much, that one must return home or to the workplace and to a world full of disappointments and strife. This is why citizens do not take manifestos and election promises seriously. One knows that the promises given and the programmes declared will soon be forgotten once the elections are over.

But politics is not metaphysics and elections are not mere rituals. They bring in real men and women to decide the course of life for other real men and women. The men and women brought in are no gods and goddesses. Their actions will be expected to be governed by the constraints of the Constitution. Some of them may be individually well meaning, but they will have to work within the framework of the policies decided for them by their parties. And though every new party takes birth in the unpolluted soil of ideology, its growth requires so many pragmatic compromises that it soon starts looking like all other parties full of dunces, demagogues and outright criminals. In the end, an election becomes a round of negotiations between citizens perpetually disappointed with the State and politicians continually promising to make things work.

This may sound a bit too cynical but I am tempted to say that a nation poised for elections is like a dead animal surrounded by a bunch of bullies and a mob of hungry men. The bullies say, "Give me a chance, I will bring this animal back to life so that it can serve you and make you happy." Everybody knows that whichever bully is given the chance is going to bleed it further and go for the largest cut. Everybody in the mob desires to get some leftovers. This is too brutal an image of our selves. I wish it were untrue.

Whether a citizen looks at the elections as a ritual of sending prayers to saints and gods, a mere pragmatic arrangement of political convenience, or a merciless game of brute desires, depends entirely on oneís social location and economic status. Obviously, there cannot be a Citizenís Manifesto for any elections that can be expected to be acceptable to all other citizens. There is a big difference between a political party and an individual citizen: a party is like a determined sprinter. It must win the race or lose it. A citizen is like one in the cheering mob; for him the fact that the race is held is more important than who loses or who wins, unless an element of betting is involved. A Citizenís Manifesto for the general elections, therefore, is bound to be of a different character than that of a party.

I wish I could produce a manifesto for an imaginary Indian citizen; but there is no typical Indian. The diversity of issues and the variety of political needs simply make that task frustrating. Citizens in the north-eastern part of India are looking for a politically level playing opportunity; the citizen of the Indian heartland is looking forward to the end of casteĖfeuds; the western Indian citizen is looking forward to a more active economic climate; the Kashmiri is hoping to have a breather; the Andhra-ite is asking for the end to the militancy of the PWG; the laid-off mill workers of Mumbai and Ahmedabad expect re-employment; the PSU staff is hoping that privatisation can somehow be slowed down; farmers across the country are praying for a controlled power tariff; truckers are looking forward to days of toll-free but better roads; university teachers are asking for less desi-history and astrology and more physics and business management; the stock markets are looking for the ups; the soldiers camping along the border are looking for a let-up; the media is looking for camera-savvy candidates; and the President of India is looking for those who will be able to read the oath served to them. Everybody is looking for everything that one can possibly look for; and nobody is looking at India.

Election after election, India continues to suffer. Tribals continue to lose their meagre land; the de-notified nomadic communities continue to face custodial deaths; the under-trial prisoners still languish in jails; the destitute and the homeless continue to beg; the peasants keep working on empty bellies; women still suffer discrimination; religious minorities continue to encounter violence and brutalising ghettoisation; health care and primary education keep sliding further down; the population continues to grow ceaselessly and the food security for over a quarter of the population keeps becoming increasingly threatened. The India of equality and freedom for every citizen increasingly appears to have become an impossibility. Though I am terrified at the thought, I cannot help thinking that the Indian Parliament has let down the country, particularly during the last quarter of a century, very grievously. There is little hope for a citizen to find a new direction, new energy to revitalise the spirit of the Indian Constitution and the democracy that Parliament can provide. Its record has not been very encouraging.

My charter for all candidates and all parties contesting for power during the forthcoming elections is simple: Please do not have manifestos. Please do not make promises. Please do nothing at all in your five years of term. Make no new laws. Act less, so you will hurt this country less. In these five years, I will request the honourable elected members to get a copy of the Constitution and read it thoroughly at least once. My prayer to them will be: Please look around and see in what image the people behold you. Lend your ears and hear what people have to say about you. If political parties do not undertake a collective exercise of intense introspection, the people of this country, already driven to desperation, may have to find forms and forums other than Parliament to get social justice, equality and a lawful governance. Perhaps they will have to think of a parallel Parliament. My charter, to put it in a single phrase, will be "Save the Parliament, it is too precious to be thrown away."

(Ganesh Devy is with the Tribal Academy, Tezgadh).

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