Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Thinking About Babush – I : Mapping the terrains of the operation

On the 23rd of March, despite opposition to 10 of the 11 seats being contested at the Panchayat elections, the panel floated by Atanasio Monserrate won all 11. How does one make sense of the results of the recently concluded elections to the Taleigão Panchayat? The dominant view within the opposition is that Monserrate is the embodiment of evil, and that all of Taleigão cowers in fear. Other views would argue that he has filled Taleigão with migrants who blindly vote in his favour. Others argue that some sold their vote for the gifts of a thousand rupees, a bicycle or a sewing machine. I believe that the story of Monserrate is a little more complex than this, and we need to necessarily rethink our evaluation of him.

Countering the allegations that he bribed the voters, Monserrate reportedly responded that we should not insult the voters. Monserrate makes a valid point here. As with any allegation of corruption, there is a certain political point that Monserrate’s opposition is trying to score. The point is to undermine the individual decisions of those persons who voted for Monserrate. The suggestion is that they are not free-thinking, concerned and responsible citizens. It is scornfully suggested that they are merely opportunists who will vote for the highest bidder. While I have no doubt that in fact money did exchange hands and that gifts of cycles and sewing machines, drink and chicken were in fact made, I would choose to look beyond the allegation that the votes of the people were purchased. The reason I choose to refute the argument that votes can be purchased is because this scornful position refuses to recognize that the persons who accepted these gifts were in fact making calculated political decisions. Just like the ‘apolitical’ stance taken by Goa and Taleigão Bachao Abhiyans, the argument that votes can be sold, refuses to appreciate and engage with the politics of the people.

To begin with, whose is this scorn? Clearly it is the scorn of those who do not need a thousand rupees a vote, or cycles or sewing machines. It is the scorn of the haves for the have-notes, the haves presuming that it is only they who well and truly appreciate what democracy is all about. The gifts were accepted because these gifts, as petty as some of us may consider them, did make a difference to the economy of the households that they were presented to. Further, the gift-taking is in fact a rather complex participation in democracy. The gift-takers recognize that the politician cares for them only to the extent of their votes, that the system will not address their condition. Thus, if they have to vote, they will vote only if you pay (gift) them to do so. It is thus, through this gift-giving, and their construction of themselves as a vote-bank, that they force the electoral process to in fact work. If they didn’t, then given the fact that most of the middle class does not vote, the electoral process would grind to a screeching halt! Our scorn for the gift-taking therefore, is extremely problematic and ironically, politically naive!

This political naiveté is built on the incredulousness of the upper orders who are convinced of their own political maturity and the corresponding immaturity of the labouring classes. They reason that it is because these labouring classes are so immature that our democracy is today malfunctioning the way that it is. These orders refuse to see that these ‘malfunctionings’ of democracy are in fact the result of the deeply problematic socio-economic divides that persist in our society, and that we repeatedly refuse to address. It is because we refuse to recognize this fact, and persist in our confounded arrogance, that a good portion of the opposition to the development lobby in Goa is primarily engaged in ‘creating awareness’. They are firmly convinced that the only reason for the silence of the majority is because this majority is not aware. It is because we stubbornly refuse to consider the alternative, that they are politically astute individuals making carefully calibrated decisions that the tide we seek to stem continues to inundate us.

If we recognized the ‘maturity’ of these gift takers and recognized that gifts are accepted because these gifts made a difference to the economies of the households that accepted them, our positions and our strategies would change instantly. We would recognize that the presence of ‘outsiders’ in our villages, and their transformation into vote-banks for the unscrupulous, can be addressed if, and when, we address the issue of their poverty. If we are able to ensure that their working conditions are better, the salaries they are paid are higher, and that social welfare extendable to any worker, we would see a significant drop in the arrival of these outsiders. This for two primary reasons; first, because it would make employing ‘external’ labour more expensive (especially if one is talking of housing migrant construction-labour); and secondly, with an increase in pay-scales and benefits, the Goan, who in facts demands a more mature work environment, would begin seeking employment within Goa. As is increasingly becoming clear to me though, much of the oppositional space in Goa is captured by elites, who do not want to see radical change, but want only a return to the status-quo. Secondly, when the non-elites among this opposition take charge, they unfortunately don’t seem to be able to articulate their demands in broader terms. On the contrary, they too get caught in the whirlpools of the discourse established by the elite. As a result, rather than seeing solidarity with the ‘outsider’, they too begin outsider bashing. As a result, there is no substantial progress towards resolving Goa’s crisis.

To return to this matter of respecting the voter though, while Monserrate’s objection may have helped us see a valid point, he too is guilty of disrespecting the voter. There is a certain perversity, when one hands scraps to the needy, even as the socio-economic and ecological base of these needy are being destroyed. In addition, it is clear that while Monserrate may share scraps, it is a lion’s share that he keeps for himself.

As I will try to elaborate in the next segment of these reflections, while Monserrate has offered his constituency a political dream that they can identify with, in reality he offers them only a mirage, one that will never be realized concretely. What clinches the deal for him however, is the fact that he has managed to offer concrete glimpses of this mirage. This, is enough for the hopefuls of our land. On the other hand though, his opposition offers no dream at all. It offers only a return to a fast-disappearing status-quo. And NO-ONE wants to return to that, except the elite. If the opposition to Monserrate (and the rest of the brokering political establishment) are serious, then they need to not only present to the people of Goa a dream, but put their actions where their talk is and working toward presenting a concrete example of the dream that they offer.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 1 April 2009)

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