All That Free Is Not Fair

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Finally the curtain came down after a long winding assembly election in West Bengal. It had its share of frill, shrill and cheers – for all that violence and success of a particularly unique election this time. A seven act drama - a seven phased volatile electioneering ended finally with a sense of accomplishment for the election commission officials. All such acts were to serve the greatest democracy and its promises.

The central character of this drama is the voter. The successful voter is the agent of Indian democracy. In all the media dispositions the central proposition has been- the right to cast one’s own vote. This has been the most defining campaign at the public sphere this time around.

The idea that gains currency is that becoming a successful voter is the marker of democracy. Of course, democracy has an arithmetical dimension, but a more fundamental issue behind a successful voter is the question of citizenship. In all the clamour for voting right in the Indian context, the substantive talk of citizenship has hardly figured. That, voting right is just a part of a more wider aspect of citizenship rights. The model of democracy that the Indian Constitution proposes for us revolves essentially on the question of citizenship rights. An accomplished voter need not be a rights bearing citizen.

In Indian democracy it is possible to skip the elementary steps of becoming a good citizen and still can become a potential voter.Historically, democracy has been multi-dimensional. So far, the western liberal democratic model has appeared as the most popular and successful. Its diametric opposite, the communist system could not really ignore all the democratic principles. And, the third type is a post-colonial practice of democracy. Here, the attainment of sovereignty is being equated with that of democracy. Choose your own representative, while you exercise your own vote. Over the years, Indian democracy has been riding a see-saw of ‘ almost a liberal democracy’ and ‘ a failed liberal democracy’ !

The western liberal system had to traverse a long way to secure the rights of citizenship. The rights were all incremental, and each step prepared the subsequent stage of rights. So it was not just the voting rights, but equal rights of voting, the fundamental rights of education, health, food, minimum wages, working hours to rights concerning women’s health and life opportunities- all of these rights complemented the free market principle of a more modern economic system. The gradual expansion of rights marked the coming of the citizen in the modern world.

A successful democracy rests on the expanse of citizenship rights. An advanced life ways, an active and equal rights of opportunities over resources and a break with the ‘past’ guide citizenship rights. Keeping most of these elemental issues unattended, Indian celebrates the ‘free’ voter of a fairy land of democracy. Otherwise, how does one explain the relative more voting percentage and election-activism among the underprivileged and struggling masses? Whereas, the role of the sections which are more aware and alert of citizen’s rights has remained marginal or untested with respect to election process and outcome.

The self-construction of this democracy is quite predictable. Since the Swadeshi days, especially in Bengal province, this self-construction is embedded in the nature of ‘mass’ politics. An important contribution to Swadeshi politics came from the variously scattered Bandhab Samitis ( Fraternity Committees ). The Samitis were all geared towards relief works in times of calamities. The germ of reformist politics is built-in in these politics of alms. A kind of patronage based politics subsequently continued and prospered in many other parts of India and in many forms keeping the immediate material interest on the balance sheet.

It all started with a temporary project of coming to the rescue of the destitute during natural calamities or famines. It later on metamorphosed to a service-oriented politics in post-colonial context. The patron-client model shaped the structure of mass-contact based politics. The receiver, the lucky and loyal client emerged as the potential voter. This service-subsidy based politics reaches its peak when all the avenues for self-reliant and motivated social mobility are effectively shut down. The client–voter is effectively an anathema of the ideal ‘free’ voter.

Of course, there are changes of this patron- client political relationship. Just some five years back Bengal witnessed such a dramatic change-over. Nevertheless, it proved to be a change within the same set of ground rules. In the motherland of liberal system, the historical character of democracy was propelled by actions beyond the narrow confines of self-interest. It had to do with the clarion call to look beyond the temporary for the wholesome progress of the entire society. The voices were that initiated the move forward were the clergy and the noble men. In different historical times and contexts, it has been the enlightened class and their representatives who could act as the visionary. This has been poignantly argued by sociologist Dipankar Gupta in his book, ‘Revolution From Above’ ( 2013 ).

What has happened in recent times in Bengal, was an appropriation of the elite phrases and idioms by an aspiring marginal. A politics of the popular has taken such a banal route that there is no emancipation from the ‘order of the day’. The ordinariness is being politicized to scuttle any vision beyond. But the call of democracy has historically not come from such ‘ ordinarisation’ of ideals ! It entails defying the confines of primordial identities and interests, it demands an escape from the given. It is willy-nilly an elite call. Citizenship rights is intrinsically wound with this historical project of democracy. It involves a mutual interaction between rights-bearing individuals.

A civil society cannot be promoted by a Statist power. Neither a citizen could be a product of State intervention. When we claim of a ‘ free and fair ’ election in Bengal, we visualize a 24x7 coverage of policemen or central reserve police jawans chasing the vote looters, canning them away. An uneven match between the well-armed police, central forces and the vote-looters. These looters are the vanguard section of the clientele of patronage politics. Quite hapless are they in their struggle for a healthy living. Armed with all the locally made bombs, choppers or pistols they repay their patrons, while the experts on all public discussions clamour for a free and fair election. This time around, the commission has had the last laugh, the gentry loved the victory of the armed forces of the State. As it stands, the fair election goes to the credit of the State. At the victory of the Statist power, can there be an assertion of a civil society ? Rather, does a successful voter signify an accomplished citizen ?