Want To Change Society? Go Vote

Indian citizens have had many chances to vote in honest, corruption-free and egalitarian leader, but we’ve repeatedly squandered these chances by voting blindly.

If we go by how the majority votes, it seems we just expect politicians to be criminals now. Several of our elected politicians have criminal cases filed against them, and this is true across party lines. In When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, the author Milan Vaishnav says that 34% of the Lok Sabha’s members have criminal charges filed against them, and the figure is rising. Even Nitish Kumar often praised for cleaning up Bihar politics, doesn’t have a great track record. In 2010, his party was re-elected even though 35% of its candidates have been accused of serious criminal charges.

As citizens of a democratic country, we have the power to choose those who govern us – and the power to stop criminals from entering politics. While it’s fair to assume that some of these cases may have been filed by opponents looking to malign honest politicians’ reputations, that can’t be the case every time. In Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “No criminal accused will dare to fight polls. Who says that the cleaning cannot happen? I have come to cleanse politics.”

Of course, this claim did not stop BJP MP Yogi Adityanath from becoming UP’s chief minister, despite an impressive list of criminal charges including rioting, attempt to murder, carrying deadly weapons, endangering the lives or personal safety of others, unlawful assembly, trespassing on burial places and criminal intimidation.

Over the past three general elections, a candidate with a rap sheet of serious charges has had an 18% chance of winning his or her race, compared with 6% for a ‘clean’ rival. On one hand political parties give tickets to people accused of rape, on the other they call for stronger anti-rape measures in parliament, seemingly unaware of their own hypocrisy.

There are several possible explanations for why we elect criminals or people with cases against them. In rural India, people in villages are often forced to turn to local goons to get justice in the absence of an adequate state apparatus like the police. That may explain the mass support that rape-accused BJP MLA Kuldeep Sengar enjoys in his constituency. Sengar wouldn’t have made a visit to the police station with a convoy of 40 cars if he was afraid of the law. It seemed more of an intimidation tactic than a surrender. Two days after Sengar’s arrest, the victim’s uncle claimed that the MLA’s goons were threatening villagers to keep quiet.

Issue-based protests like Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement and the protests that followed Jyoti Singh’s rape and death in December 2012, fail to translate into electoral change. Leaving us right where we started.

If you think that I’m politicising the issue, then yes, you’re right. Politics determines the birth and death of every individual, nothing exists outside its sphere. It’s not enough to organise a mass campaign to protest the number of criminals or accused in our political system, we need to channel our discontent into our votes, and support a political party that is willing to deny tickets to people with criminal records and cases filed against them. The struggle against patriarchy, misogyny and corruption needs to be waged in parallel with a larger political struggle.

While lambasting politicians, let us remember that they are elected representatives. If we elect a chief minister with a misogynistic mindset like Manohar Lal Khattar, who makes statements like “If a girl is dressed decently, a boy will not look at her in the wrong way,” or when asked about a woman’s freedom of choice, says, “If you want freedom, why don’t they just roam around naked? Freedom has to be limited, these short clothes are western influences. Our country’s tradition asks girls to dress decently” then there is definitely something wrong with how we’re exercising our democratic choice.

Arresting criminals, passing newer stricter laws or reforming existing ones won’t help much as long as we are ruled by people with cases against themselves. We need to stop voting them in.

Several countries in the world, for a better democracy, have made voting compulsory. In Australia, the penalty for failing to vote at a State election or Local Government election is $55.00.  In Brazil, people who fail to vote in an election are barred from getting passports in addition to other restrictions. If a Bolivian citizen fails to participate in an election, the person may be denied the right to withdraw money from his bank account.

Only 66% of us voted in the 2014 general elections. When we don’t vote, those in power don’t feel obligated to listen to us. To vote is to make our voices heard. While there is no way to predict how long it will take before we see significant positive gains, we have the potential to achieve a radical societal change through our votes.

Vivashwan Singh is studying political science, history and English from Christ University, Bengaluru.

Featured image credit: PTI