In defense of the passive citizen

Monday, 21 April 2014 - 3:27pm IST | Agency: DNA

When an auto rickshaw driver in Karnataka ferried people to the polling booths for free on the Election Day, the media called him a great philanthropist. But, is it self-evident that it is a virtue to vote? Does it make sense to encourage the passive to vote?

The mainstream media celebrates the phenomenon of the people who do not even know their own age registering their opinion on complex policy matters. They are, after all, eager to vote. The underlying logic is irrefutable: “If ignorance does not stop the passengers from pushing the buttons and pulling the levers of the air craft, this must be noble. At least, they are doing something.” 

Of the 814.5 million people who are eligible to vote in the 2014 national election, many are illiterate. Of the 273 million illiterate Indians, the large majority are eligible to vote. The voter turnout in the 2014 national election is expected to be the highest in India’s history. The introduction of the None of the Above (NOTA) option in the Lok Sabha election is expected to lead to more electoral participation.  

Many illiterate people do vote."I hear that many of them, especially women, are knocked out of their wits by the politicians. The politicians who fear that their rival candidates might win tell them to press NOTA because NOTA is God. When they expect to win, they tell the illiterates that if they press NOTA, they will be electrocuted." The sentimentalists want to put every child in school to teach them to read and do basic arithmetic operations. But, for reasons best known to themselves, they think that in the matter of public policy, the illiterate are as good as any. They might be illiterate, but in politics, they cannot be fooled. The fact that the illiterate have lived with this “handicap” is considered further proof of their competence. It is never mentioned that they never made a serious attempt to cure themselves.

But, greater participation in the electoral process would have been good if the educated and the informed do not vote. If the learned people are passive, it makes sense to nudge them in the right direction. It makes sense to encourage them to make themselves heard. But, even though the journalists often claim that the middle class and the rich does not vote, five decades of empirical research on democracy prove that the people who do not vote are unusually likely to be poor and ill-informed. The people who vote are more likely to be educated, and have more enlightened views.

But, the illiterate are unusually likely to not vote. So, does it make any sense to encourage the illiterate masses to influence public policy? Perhaps the most pathetic delusion of the political analysts in India is that the common man can solve the problems that plague the society. When doing “something” is worse than doing nothing at all, passivity is a great virtue. There is not much data on public opinion India, but there is enormous evidence to suggest that education and intelligence are the biggest predictors of enlightened opinion in politics. Even in the western capitalistic democracies where virtually everyone is literate, most citizens cannot name their representatives. Is there any reason to assume that the illiterate people would spot the best candidate when even the literate cannot name them? But, these are only superficial details.

In almost every issue, the policy relevant consensus among experts is precisely the opposite of what the common public and the politicians believe. For example, almost every economist advocates free trade. But, most Indians believe that globalization is a scheme to starve the poor and eat their children. The illiterate and the ignorant are more likely to hold such beliefs. If more people vote the politicians will find it harder to cater to a section of the society that has more accurate views. In fact, public choice theorists have long known that the failure to vote is the major reason why democracy is not such a big disaster. 

But, it is not hard to understand why the admirers of democracy love greater participation. It fits in well with their vision. Their heart lies with the real India waiting to get in, but is still being kept out by the elite. They think that ordinary masses will not go away. It might be their only hope, but they have something called the vote which will humiliate their betters. The Day of Judgment will come once in every five years.

While the middle class and the rich are busy partying, they will march to the polling booth in hordes and push the button, throwing all the rascals out. It would be quite an inspiring sight! 

This is quite a vision. It is also a vision that never materialised in its full glory. Or, perhaps it did, in an ironically grotesque manner. Lalu Prasad Yadav once said: "From a buffalo back, I have landed into the gut of a helicopter. This is democracy." It is not open to argument whether he was right. What is open to argument is whether this can be considered a merit of democratic politics. 

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