Many decades from now, my most vivid memories of elections in my youth will be that of the indelible ink mark on the fingers of conscientious people littering my Facebook newsfeed. According to the Election Commission, the polling rate in the 2014 elections is the greatest in the history of independent India. Before you sing loud hosannas to the voter who carries a part of the Indian society on his shoulders, remember: voters are like adolescent boys. It is dangerous to give them what they crave.
There is nothing more dangerous than asking an adolescent boy whether he loves his girlfriend. He might swear he will go to the ends of the world for his love, because deep down, he knows his plan will never get off the ground. The adolescent girl is far more reticent because she will ditch him and marry someone else when she grows up, which will be soon. The adolescent boy votes with his heart. For him, love is “near”, marriage is “far”. He is a visionary, but he is also a deluded hypocrite. But the adolescent girl votes with her feet because her vote is, after all, decisive. For her, love is “far”, marriage is “near”.
It is dangerous to give voters what they profess to like in the polling booths, because like our hypothetical adolescent boy, they sincerely lie. One of the loudest complaints of the admirers of democracy is that people are too lazy to vote. But when the final phase of polling ended, 66.38% of the people had registered their vote. It is perhaps true that an overwhelming majority of the literate population votes. This is big deal, because there is nothing in it for them. But, then, it is not hard to walk to the polling booth and press a button. If virtue is cheap, people will buy more of it. The tragedy is that they vote with their heart because the probability of their vote changing the outcome is vanishingly small.
When Narendra Modi and Prakash Karat denounce multinational corporations, it moves the voters. They wistfully and ruefully recall the local kirana shop owner when they vote. The local kirana shop is charming and personal when patriotism is “near”, and goodies are “far”. But, when they see a Walmart store in their neighbourhood, they will walk in shamelessly. Then, they vote with their feet. Now, goodies are “near”, patriotism is “far”.
During the Emergency months, even the men and women who feared “over-population” had to be hauled away to sterilisation camps. Family planning is far, but sterilisation camps are “near”. The common man thinks the government ought to protect them from this or that malaise. But no one likes being screened at airports. They sulk when they are disciplined for not wearing helmets or seat belts. But when they vote, they ask for a Hitler.
When push comes to shove, the Indian voter is not a visionary. However much they might rant against income inequality, no one likes being mulcted by the tax collector. If they can spare themselves the trouble of paying taxes, they would choose it. Even the leftist intellectuals would not want to go back to the pre-reform period when there were no cable channels, mobile phones, or even the internet. Given a chance, even blind ideologues escape to fairer lands. Even Hindu nationalists who oppose globalisation and western values are living a lie.
Both politicians and voters would not have resented it when the Supreme Court recently said the state can impose schooling in regional languages in government schools. But given a choice, any right-thinking parent would pay his way out of the state schooling system. To buy virtue with a brisk walk to the polling booth, Indian voters vote for policies they probably would not have supported with their own money. This hardly proves that the policies of the government are evil, but it is indisputable that this is not what they really want.
But then, it is impossible to give voters what they profess to like without aggressing against them, as it is impossible to give the teenage boy what he “craves” without aggressing against the girl. The aggression might as well be worth it if that is what they genuinely want. But, what if it is not? Of course, the difference is that unlike the teenage boys, the sanest among us learn to live with what the average voter chose when he was knocked out of his wits.