Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Thinking About The Invalid Vote: Generating Electoral Options

Another assembly election, another round of lies, filth, hopes and furious sloganeering- both by political parties and well-meaning citizens urging for voting for change. The question is though is change possible through the assembly level elections? Can we really change the system through the simple act of casting our vote? I’m not so sure, but I wouldn’t want to play spoil sport either. A good Foucaldian and a one-time Gandhian I firmly believe in the possibility of the individual and the capacity of individual physical acts of resistance.

While a student at the National Law School, the annual convocation at the university brought the former President of India, R. Venkataraman to deliver a lecture to the guests assembled at the Convocation. Hot and tired, I nevertheless perked up when he uttered the magic words “Invalid vote”. Unable to locate the text of his address, I will not attribute what I am about to suggest as electoral strategy to the late President but definitely credit him as inspiration. What I believe he suggested was that the invalid vote could be an important instrument to indicate to the political establishment in our states and country that we disapprove of the candidates standing for election and see no valid choice being offered to us. Contemplating what I heard that morning many years ago, I believe that Goa is a perfect location to try it out as electoral strategy. We have no real choice in Goa, the corrupt and the communal being located in every single candidate that is standing for election.

The option for the invalid vote is not one however that we can exercise at an individual level alone. I believe that this option while exercised individually must necessarily accompany a mass movement, such that the political establishment faced with a growing count of invalid votes must take heed that they face an electorate that is determined to literally throw a spanner in the works, and blackmail radical change into place. Allow me to illustrate the power of the invalid vote with another anecdote from the history of the National Law School. Refused direct elections by the founder-Director of the Law school and Faculty, after years of petitioning, matters eventually came to a head. The student body called for a General Body Meeting indicating to the members of the Electoral College (one composed of students selected by faculty to administrative committees) that if they were in fact representing the will of the students in this indirect election of President, then they would not vote that particular year. Later that evening the university made history and jammed the system when the student representatives refused to vote for a President. The Law school remained without a President for a year, but at the end of it, they had a new Constitution that provided for direct elections of a President from among the student body.

A state is not the small institution that the National Law School is, but I believe that the option of the invalid vote exercised by a vocal population allows for us to send a similar message and frustrate the operation of a corrupt and unresponsive political establishment. A growing and substantial population that chooses the invalid vote would similarly disrupt the operation of the political system in a state at most and increasingly refuse legitimacy at least. I see this as a possible option for Goa primarily because we are a small state facing by and large a similar crisis, whether it is in the coastal districts being bought up for leisure consumption, or the internal districts being mined out without respect for local livelihoods. Further a move to popularize the invalid vote necessarily requires a larger civil society movement, one that is not restricted to movements that emerge in moments of crisis and dissipate subsequently. In the eventual event that we should succeed in such a movement, what we would have is a growing focus on the village panchayat, an official space whose powers, at least on paper are growing. The Panchayat allows us an ideal forum where our voices are heard, and our frustrations necessarily dealt with by the elected officials – they don’t enjoy X, Y, Z security you see? Eventually I believe that if the political establishment is to change, it is through change where greater powers are effectively realized at the village level, allowing for a dialogical state, rather than the unresponsive behemoth we are forced to tango with.

We cannot however be blind to the fact that our exercise of the invalid vote would allow a goon to step into power. My response to this argument would be to point out that as of now we don’t really have a real option. There is no difference between the corrupt, the criminal and the communal. In the indirect democracy characterized by a dishonest and unresponsive leadership, I believe that the movement of the invalid vote is a genuine possibility, and one we need to actively explore and employ. Takers anyone? The revolution really begins with the power of ONE.

(published in the Gomantak Times 31 May 2007)


RAP said...

I know I am side-stepping the issue under discussion here....but woah! There was a time when NLS didn't have direct elections???!!!

That's a piece of law skool history I never knew!

Jason Keith Fernandes said...

you bet! there was such a time...what I find incredibly interesting is the absolute lack of initiative to document law school history. Perhaps it has to do with teh fact that a good amount of this history is a history of resistance.

Given that I have been looking at Law School critically for some time (hoping to publish a paper on it sometime soon), this absence makes for interesting conjecture...