Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ballot gone Bust: Contemplating the ‘Wasted’ Vote

When on the 23rd of March I informed friends and family that I had voted for the Communist Party of India as my choice of representative in the Lok Sabha, a number took it on themselves to inform me that I had ‘wasted my’ vote. The Communists stood no chance at winning either in Goa, or forming the Government at the Centre. It is to this notion of ‘waste’ that I would like to attend to today. Is voting in an election only about voting for a candidate who is likely to win, or is it about making other statements as well?

At the time when Al Gore stood as the Presidential Candidate for the Democrats against George W. Bush Jr. a number of my friends expressed some amount of anguish that the Green Party insisted on fielding a candidate of their own. Al Gore they believed was as green a President as they would ever get, and fielding a Green Party candidate merely divided the loyalties of those who would otherwise vote for Al Gore. To this general position, another held the opinion that regardless of how green Gore was, it was necessary for the Greens to field a candidate merely to make a statement about the viability and seriousness of the Green Party as an electoral option. I believe I am able to appreciate that position only today, subsequent to this general election in India.

Increasingly I have come to believe that in a democracy one does not vote only to win, and place one’s candidate of choice in Government. One votes also to express one’s choice. This choice may not be a popular one, but it nevertheless needs to be expressed for reasons that I will discuss below. This association of elections with getting one’s party into power we can perhaps trace to two tendencies within our democracy. The first is one where getting one’s work done has come to mean everything. By any means, fair or foul, one must obtain one’s objective. The second is the tendency to assume that coalition politics of the kind we have seen in the last few Parliaments is a problem, and we should move toward a two party system. It is in the expression of support for this shift towards dual party politics, that the full significance of ‘choice’ becomes evident.

The two-party system is, at least in today’s world, no choice at all! Is there a significant difference between the Republican and Democrat Party? Some would argue not really. Is there a difference between the Congress and the BJP? I believe that the choice between the two is a false one, both playing pretty much the same game. These parties (and especially the BJP) welcome a two party system, because coalition politics requires you to balance the interests of the diverse segments of the polity. A two-party system where a single party has a significant majority, allows greater leeway in simply pushing agendas through. A two-party system in fact allows for majoritarianism (the rule of the majority). In India t

oday, by and large democracy has been understood to be majoritarianism. However, democracy is really about securing the rights and interests of the minority groups, a political truth that most of us would rather ignore. The creation of multiple electoral choices is therefore a crucial aspect of rescuing the Indian democracy from the morass into which it seems to be sliding.

Over the past few years, and especially in Goa, we have been encouraged to think that electing representatives to create the government is our sole democratic responsibility. Subsequent to the election, these representatives take over and we need to exercise ourselves only in another five years. This situation has led to the almost oligarchic tyranny that prevails both in Goa and in the rest of India. Voting in this scenario must also be about the active creation of political choices, voting for parties despite their dim chances, because this vote may encourage them to refashion themselves. A ‘wasted’ vote this year, could result in a ‘serious’ option opening up at the next election.

None of these possibilities make sense however, in an environment where ideologies, principles and dreams (all variations of Hope) have perished under the glare of cynicism. The crisis we face today, the same crisis that allows us to consider a vote ‘wasted’, is fundamentally a spiritual crisis. The early secular republics in separating the Church from the State, also set up a spiritual realm for the citizens of the God-absent polity. The Nation was deity in the Republic, and the dreams of liberty, fraternity, equality were its religious creed. Like the religious vision it replaced, Republicanism also believed in a paradise. The only distinction was that this Paradise would be achieved not through the coming of the Deity on earth, but through the political labours of (hu)man. Voting in the elections was therefore just one of the citizen’s many actions towards committing to the realization of Paradise on earth. Citizenship called for (and still does) a total commitment of human endeavour toward the realization of this perfect polity. The election, if only one, was nevertheless an important mystical ritual in the life of the secular Republic. In the glare of the cynical sun of contemporary politics, this vision has all but burned away.

A return to the mystical in politics therefore would not be out of place and the ‘wasted’ vote has a fine tradition to fall back on. One thread in this tradition is that of Nishkama Karma, where the action is performed without the expectation of the fruit of the action. One performs the action merely because it is the right thing to do, not because of the fruit of the action. Another elaborate argument is present by Pope Benedict XVI in his Encyclical titled Spe Salvi. Spe Salvi presents an argument in favour of Hope, arguing against the cynicism of our times, against the selfish individualism that marks our times and our pursuit of justice. A reading of Spe Salvi, in the context of political action would present to us a scenario where voting for a party most likely to come to power is not an option at all. On the contrary he argues that Hope would ‘give us the courage to place ourselves on the side of good even in hopeless situations, aware that, as far as the external course of history is concerned, the power of sin will continue to be a terrible presence’. The ‘wasted’ vote then, has also a mystical dimension, where it is a symbol of our commitment to Hope, a refusal to participate in the ‘sin’ of ‘pragmatic’ politics. Where the BJP is marked by ‘sin’, the option for us is not the Congress, marked as it is by similar and other ‘sins’. We are charged with creating the option for choice, even if this means our preferred candidate does not win, and the exercise of this vote will place us in a seemingly hopeless situation. When the ballot is exercised with Hope, and our participation in democracy extends beyond participation in a quinquennial ritual, the ‘wasted’ ballot in fact lays the foundation for the emergence of a stronger democracy in the future.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 6th May 2009)

1 comment:

Sergio Mascarenhas said...

Hello Jason, sorry but here I coulnd't follow you. Let's see:

On Al Gore, it seems that history proved that the defenders of the useful vote were right while the defenders of the principled vote were wrong, isn't it?
Besides, why those constant references to American party politics? What do they have in common with India? India political system is based on the British, not the American. Both the British and the American systems are highly idiossincretical and cannot be generalized to other contexts. Referring to America tells us nothing about political options in India.

On bipartisan politics... there's no bipartisan politics in India at large or in Goa in particular, in any sense of the expression. So, expressing doubts about bipartisan politics by pointing to India or Goa is really meaningless.

"in a democracy one does not vote only to win, and place one’s candidate of choice in Government. One votes also to express one’s choice". Fine. But what's the choice in voting for a party with no electoral prospects? To help then express their views and have their voice eard? There are better venues to achieve this. Why chosing that particular medium of expression - an election?

"A ‘wasted’ vote this year, could result in a ‘serious’ option opening up at the next election".
No, it doesn't. The option will be serious in next election depending on what its proponents do in the course of the years that lead to there. All the wasted votes of today tell us is that they're no serious option today. And those wasted votes don't contribute to solution of the political issues that will be faced in the course of those years.

On your link between politics and spirituality... it has been attempted. Often. It does not work. Politics is about choosing the smallest evil, not about realising the greatest good. Is this cinicism? No, it's the name of the game. If your game is about spiritualism, moral grounds, ethics fight it in its right place, not in politics.