There’s Growing Public Disgust With Corrupt And Incompetent Politicians. Now’s The Time To Make Your Voice Heard. Our Future Rides On It

Jaideep Bose

After Independence, India could easily have gone the ruinous way of so many former colonies. You don’t need to look beyond our neighbourhood for evidence — at Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal. Large swathes of Asia and Africa have been under the control of generals, dictators and decrepit monarchies, and are less familiar with democracy than they are with despotism. We have so far managed to prove wrong Winston Churchill’s imperialist prediction that once the British left, India would succumb to its “old hatreds and Oriental tyrannies”.
To the West, India’s 60-year-long engagement with democracy remains one of the modern political wonders of the world — particularly in the way it swarms to the polls every five years. How is it that this sprawling, populous, chaotic country, which is defiantly diverse — in its religion and culture, its geography and history —has stayed true to its Constitution through good times and bad (barring a brief 21-month interregnum in the Seventies)? If democracy has been hardwired into our political ecology, the credit in large part should go to the founding fathers of the Indian nation, visionaries like Gandhi and Nehru, to whom democracy, like freedom, was non-negotiable.
Unfortunately, it’s now become fashionable among a section of people to say, “The problem with India is its democracy. Look at China — once it decides to do something, nothing and nobody can come in the way.” But while the naive and the cynical extol the virtues of a bulldozer approach that brooks no opposition, most of us Indians, even at the end of a gruelling day, like our freedom. We cherish our right to free speech (as Amartya Sen said, we are terminally argumentative), our right to choose our own gods, and our right to decide who should represent us. All of these are important to us. As Indira Gandhi rudely discovered, much as we would like our trains to run on time, we love our freedoms even more.
It is true that no political or economic system in the world is perfect. If communism was the anti-god that failed, the recent collapse of Wall Street has caught capitalism — once again — with its hand in the till. It is also true that, just as you can get yourself the sturdiest car in the world and then hand over the keys to a dangerous driver, you can have the best political/economic system but with mediocre and/or morally bankrupt people to run it.
We are all painfully aware that far too many of our so-called “leaders” are corrupt, sectarian, regressive, and in the extreme, even murderous. In their list of priorities, personal aggrandizement figures way above the welfare of the people they are meant to represent. In the past few years, the pages of this paper have been depressingly full of their shameful conduct. Inside Parliament, when they weren’t selling their votes for money, they were accepting cash to ask motivated questions. Outside Parliament, they were caught taking bribes to give contracts. An MP was held for human trafficking using forged passports. In the outgoing Lok Sabha, there were 120 MPs with criminal records — many of them with multiple charges ranging from murder, kidnapping and rape to robbery, fraud and extortion. The number of serious cases alone added up to 333.
As for the parliamentary workload of our MPs, consider the fact that in all of 2008, the Lok Sabha met for just 32 days — the lowest in our parliamentary history. What
a fall when you consider that in the 1950s, it met for almost 140 days in a year. The attendance of many MPs has been abysmal — when farmer suicides were being discussed there was barely a quorum in the House. In the absence of contemporary laws, the judiciary has had to step in once too often to fill the void, which is not what it’s really supposed to do. This paper has chronicled in gory detail the plummeting standards of the legislature across the country, and how our MPs and MLAs have failed miserably in their primary role, which is to legislate. And what did one of the state Assemblies do when this paper criticized it for dereliction of duty? It charged us with breach of privilege.
Question is, can we afford to throw the baby out with the bathwater? Clearly, we can’t. Sure, we can debate what form of democracy would suit us best — and every few years the idea of a US-style presidential form of government is faithfully exhumed as an alternative to the parliamentary system we’ve inherited from the British. But as the excesses of the Bush years have shown, every form of democracy has its flaws. To return to our analogy of car and driver, a good set of wheels is of little point if there’s a wheeler-dealer in the driving seat. It’s obvious that the answer lies in finding a safe pair of hands.
The first step towards that is to vote. And yet, so many of us end up not exercising this basic right — either out of apathy or cynicism. Many of us would perhaps take the time and trouble to get ourselves registered as voters and when E-day comes, make that journey to the booth — if we believed our vote would make a difference. But we have convinced ourselves that our little say would make a smaller ripple in the electoral pool than would a drop in the Indian Ocean. Forget about swaying the verdict nationally, we don’t think we could even swing it in our own constituency.
The question we then need to ask ourselves is, do we give up without fighting the fight? More importantly, is this a fight that’s not even worth fighting? Do we hand over the keys to our House to a bunch of unworthies by default? If the answer is yes, then we’re consciously choosing to walk away from the possibility that our vote might — just might — help build a stronger, safer and more equitable India for our children and our grandchildren. There is some wisdom in the old finger that curls to point chestwards and says, “We get the government we deserve.”
As a paper, The Times of India has written about the good, the bad, and the ugly—because that’s life. But we have never stopped believing in the power of good—or, as A R Rahman said at the Oscars, in “the power of hope”.
When we launched our Lead India initiative on Independence Day of 2007, the idea was to focus our collective attention on the need for better leadership. We truly believe this country is blessed with incredible potential — both human and natural — and that there is enough and more talent to overcome the considerable challenges that stand in our way. What we need are leaders who can help realise our full potential rather than impede progress.
Without meaning to sound immodest, we believe Lead India struck a chord among the urban middle class. It seemed like an idea whose time had indeed come. Did we believe our hunt for a new generation of leaders would throw up a future Prime Minister? Not really. Our objective was at once more modest and more ambitious — paradoxical as that might sound. We weren’t looking for a person who could be Manmohan Singh’s successor’s successor; we were instead hoping to create a larger consciousness about the desperate need for many more clean, efficient and enlightened political leaders.
We structured Lead India as a talent hunt, and in the final stages, took it to television, in order to enlarge the circle of interest around what to us was an idea both serious and powerful. In the months since the culmination — around Republic Day of 2008 — of our first Lead India campaign, we have repeatedly been asked by readers, “What are you doing next? Please don’t give up, please don’t lose heart.” The thought of “giving up” has not once crossed our mind. The overwhelming response that our subsequent Teach India initiative has received—in the form of over one lakh volunteers—has only reinforced our belief that there is an army of good men and women out there who want a better future not only for their own children but for all children. They have shown by their actions that they will walk that extra mile for the India of their dreams.
Today, we rededicate ourselves to the idea of honest, thoughtful, decisive governance with the launch of the second edition of Lead India. This time around, there will be no televised talent hunt. We don’t need one — there is no bigger reality show in this country than a general election.
We have therefore decided to build this year’s Lead India around the election. It will be TOI’s endeavour to help you, through our extensive research and analysis, to choose your MP well. Our aim is only to set the compass, not dictate the choice. The average Indian voter is savvy, and we wouldn’t presume to tell him/her whom to vote for.
For starters, we will seek to define the qualities of a good MP: Is it the number of hours he spends in Parliament, the quality of his speeches, the questions he asks? Or the knowledge and commitment he brings to the House committees on which he serves? Or the toilets and roads he helps build in his constituency? Is his primary responsibility to constituency or country?
On a broader plinth, we will compare, across parameters, the performance of the Congress-led UPA government with that of its predecessor, the BJP-fronted NDA. And in the weeks leading up to the elections, we will focus on the key issues the next government will need to tackle, in the short as well as long term.
Does The Times of India believe it can influence the outcome of the election? We would be deluding ourselves if we did. We may be the largest English language paper in the world, but we reach out to a small percentage of the country’s voting population — our readership is overwhelmingly urban, educated, middle-to-upper class (although our concerns are universal). For decades, this segment felt that its voice was of little consequence, that our politicians were more interested in the rural vote, the slum vote, the minority vote, the Dalit/OBC vote. Vote banks have been and will continue to be an unavoidable part of any democracy. What’s changed in recent times is that the expanding middle socio-economic class has become an influential demographic in Indian polity; it can no longer be taken for granted. (It’s a sad fact that it took an attack on south Mumbai’s two best-known hotels to finally shake the home minister out of his job.)
We’d like to emphasise that this paper is not aligned to any party or politician; all we want is for the citizens of this country to have the best possible 543 women and men in the Lok Sabha, irrespective of caste, creed and sexual preference. We fervently hope that at least the major parties will choose their candidates well. It’s time they said no to history-sheeters, and if they don’t, we hope voters will. It would be foolish of us to believe that politics can overnight be rid of money and muscle-power, but as voters, our message needs to be loud and clear: merit and integrity matter.
Every election is important, but some, perhaps, more so than others. Just as it was in the US, this year’s election could be crucial for India. The country faces a distressing economic situation — brought on in large part by global forces—and a serious security threat. The 26/11 attack showcased — in a deeply sad and horrifying manner — the collapse of governance. The anger on the street was trained as much at the politician as it was at Pakistan.
But seven days of anger will not redeem us. Candlelight vigils and human chains have an immediate emotional flicker, but do not last beyond next morning’s headline. The most powerful instrument of change, of sending a message to our politicians, is one that is huge, messy, but largely consensual: the electoral process. If you really want to make a fundamental, longterm difference, you need to vote.
As Martin Luther King famously said in his ‘I have a dream’ address, there is a “fierce urgency of now”. India is truly at a crossroads, we cannot afford the luxury of a wrong turn. About 40% of our population is aged under 18, and 70% under 35 — India needs to get its future right.
The election of Barack Obama has come as a beacon of hope to the world. Change is possible, if we truly believe it to be. To quote A R Rahman once more, “All my life, I had a choice between love and hate. I chose love, and here I am.”
We too have a choice — between hope and hopelessness. Which would you rather choose?

One Thought on “Change Begins With Your Vote

  1. Hi,

    An online viral video idea developed by our team to encourage voting in India’s forthcoming General Elections.

    Explanatory note: In India, voters once they have cast their vote, get their left forefinger stamped with a harmless dye of indelible ink. This dot is typically stamped across the nail and cuticle, making it difficult to wear off for 4-5 days. This seems to be the best bet to prevent people from casting multiple votes.

    Your views good, bad our ugly will be appreciated.

    Thank you for your valuable time,


    PS: If any NGO or other organization needs this film for broadcast or other media, please do let me know and I would be happy to re-edit and put your logo at the end pro bono.

Do not leave without commenting. I love a good conversation :).

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