For the sake of our freedoms
I SUPPORT freedom. When my freedoms are compromised I feel outraged. The same outrage I felt when, as a child, I witnessed a mob attacking a gurdwara, and this continues to inform my position to this day.
Democratic politics is our one guarantee of freedom. I am no supporter of political dynasties nor have I any political affiliations. I also have great personal respect for Dr Manmohan Singh. But I was saddened by what happened in India and what might happen in future. Seeking the mandate of the people through free elections, respect for the constitution and smooth transitions of power are the dynamics of democratic politics. Let’s consider them one at a time.
First, it is immature to view elections as simply a process to get new governments. Free elections equalise interests, negating the asymmetries of power. In politics inequalities always exist, whether it is an industry lobby’s influence or a group’s social advantages. We cannot wish them away. And it is also possible that we personally, at some point or another, represent or benefit from these socio-economic advantages. And so our interests get formed. There is nothing inherently wrong in this. After all, politics is about engaging with different and unequal interests to seek the best outcome. But elections give each individual equal voice.
Second, we stake our freedoms on the Constitution of India because it does not discriminate on religious, linguistic, regional, caste or sexual grounds. It equalises our different identities and interests under one supreme authority. And that is why our elected representatives take an oath to uphold the constitution: to not discriminate against any citizen on the basis of identity.
Finally, the equalising effect of elections and supremacy of the constitution yield the third dynamic of democracy – smooth transitions of power. Without this, we have three options: a dictatorship, a hereditary monarchy, or violent anarchy. If the majority’s mandate is not respected at one time, then a different majority’s mandate at another time might not be respected either (and we must remember, we might be in that majority then). It would violate our freedom of choice and nullify the lowest common denominator – us as equal citizens.
Let us not be naïve; none of the above always works smoothly. But we cannot forget what these institutions promise: freedom that might one day come in handy when we are personally in trouble, when we are the victims of discrimination and prejudice. The Indian general elections delivered a verdict. The debate on the causes will continue for long. But, in the least, the voters said:
1. They did not want the NDA to return to power. The BJP’s vote share fell to 22%.
2. They did not care that Sonia Gandhi was foreign-born. Though Congress had been ambiguous about whether to field her as a prime ministerial candidate, the NDA pulled no stops in asking the voters to choose between Vajpayee and ‘foreigner’ Gandhi.
3. They had varied interests – rising stock prices, falling crop prices, and so forth.
In this milieu of personality and identity politics and competing socio-economic interests a verdict was delivered. Whether we like it or not, for the sake of our freedoms we have to respect it. But what happened?
Over 300 elected MPs (from several parties) extended their support to Sonia Gandhi, more than had ever supported Atal Behari Vajpayee. But members of the losing party, now with just over a fifth of the country’s confidence, claimed to represent ‘national sentiment’, ashamed at having a foreign-born PM. The constitution became secondary – ‘national sentiment’ superseded equality under the law. Stock-market volatility became the justification for defying the verdict of the vast majority of (remember, equal) citizens. One senior leader threatened to shave her head – her idea of what widows should look like in the 21st century – to mourn a foreign-born PM. Others targeted Sonia Gandhi’s identity and threatened to boycott her investiture, thus undermining their oath as MPs even before they had taken it. One respected columnist admitted that the issue aroused ‘the worst kind of chauvinistic nationalism’ in her.
And ‘movements for national prestige’ were launched. In this volatile, and potentially violent, environment the lady declined the premiership. We do not know her reasons but the issue has not faded away.
The issue, in fact, is not about Congress versus BJP. Nor is it really about Sonia Gandhi. The issue is whether we are willing to accord equal respect to all citizens. This is not India’s problem alone. Immigrants all over the world suffer injustices. Here in the United States – the land of immigrants – people of Mexican origin have become generals in the army. Yet, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington argues in his latest book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, that Hispanics are threatening America’s ‘white, Anglo-Protestant’ culture.
The world has changed. We live in an interdependent, interlinked and mobile world. We adopt new identities but we maintain old contacts. And they need not be conflictual. Patriotism can no longer be judged by country of birth.
And why just talk about foreign-born? Ask anyone from the Northeast how he or she is made to feel in India’s heartland.
What happened in India augurs worse for our freedoms in future. First, it sets a precedent for threatening boycott and violent protest if losing parties don’t like the winner’s identity. Today it was the country of birth. Tomorrow, upper castes will threaten to burn down the village if a lower caste candidate is elected sarpanch. Second, it disrespects our economic interests. Today stock-market investors are lamenting the loss of investments. Tomorrow, rich farmers will threaten to hike prices by imposing voluntary embargoes on foodgrain marketing. And third, at a very basic level, it threatens our security as individuals. Today we have drawn lines between ‘Indian’ and ‘foreign’, ignoring the equality of citizens. Tomorrow, as citizens of adopted countries, where we seek respect as equal members of the community, we will be discriminated or even killed because of our origins, our looks or our accents.
Do not dismiss any of the above as polemics; they have all happened in the past. But today xenophobia threatens the highest levels of democratic politics. Many of us lost money in the stock-market crash that occurred during the week of political uncertainty. Many of us might have wanted a share in disinvested oil companies that the previous government had promised. Many of us wanted to run factories unencumbered by labour laws. Many of us wanted a father-figure-like man as our leader. And many of us didn’t. Many of us, Indian citizens, voted against all this. Yes, we all have different interests. But there is one common interest: freedom to choose. Today many of us are disappointed that our preferred party lost. Tomorrow, all of us would want the freedom to demand change.
Ultimately, we are who we choose to be. Our identities are multiple. At any given time we belong to a religion, a language group, a country of origin, a city, a sex, a chosen profession, a hobby club, a visa category, an industry organisation, an alumni society, the list goes on. We cannot always fulfil all our interests, but we can respect the freedom to do so.
For the sake of our freedoms, respect for democracy is the only way to protect our interests and, most certainly, our identities.
* The views expressed are strictly personal.
United progressive alliance?
THE 14th Lok Sabha elections of April/May 2004 have led to the formation of a United Progressive Alliance coalition government at the centre replacing the Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance. A salient feature of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government is that many state-level based parties and groups which agreed to participate in this government led by the Congress party, supported from ‘outside’ by the Communist bloc of MPs, have interpreted that their mandate is to promote and solidify the secular forces and transform Indian democracy with a view to bring comfort to the ‘wretched of the earth’ – the neglected agrarian Indians and millions of unemployed rural and urban youth.
The UPA partners have concretized their above mentioned mandate in the National Common Minimum Programme expected to act as a roadmap for the government at the centre. The common place of democratic competitive party politics is that rhetoric and reality, tall claims and public policy turnabouts go hand in hand and party manifestos or CMPs are forgotten before they go out of public memory. It is imperative thus to examine the commitment of the coalition partners to the goals of secularism and a pro-poor economic and social public policy regime.
The BJP was comprehensively and decisively defeated by the voters and at the macro-level, it is appropriate to suggest that Verdict 2004 is against the Hindu communalist politics of the BJP and its pro-rich and anti-common people economic policy from 1998 to 2004. If this is the significance of the verdict, the UPA coalition government is expected to politically consolidate the secular forces against the defeated and rejected Hindu rashtravadis. The BJP is clearly committed to its ideology of Hindutva and if any reiteration was required, L.K. Advani, two weeks after the election results (28 May 2004), asserted that, ‘We remain firm and unapologetic about our espousal of Hindutva. We will continue to wage an ideological battle against those who portray Hindutva as "communal" for their narrow personal ends.’ In the same vein, Atal Behari Vajpayee (2 June 2004) stated that the BJP was defeated because of its ‘complacency and over-confidence’ and that the notorious ‘Gujarat riots were not responsible for the defeat.’ The BJP along with the Sangh parivar is unambiguously committed to making India a Hindu Rashtra.
Can the UPA coalition partners be trusted to wage a committed anti-communal/secular battle against the forces of Hindutva? The primary responsibility for leading the political struggle lies with the Congress which is heading the UPA government and has the largest number of Lok Sabha MPs. While the Congress party in its manifesto of 2004 has written that it is committed to fight against ‘communal and divisive politics of the BJP’ and has repeated this commitment in the National Common Minimum Programme, doubts remain because its past record has many black spots and it has rarely hesitated to compromise in the garb of ‘soft Hindutva’.
The Congress party can be held responsible for the emergence and consolidation of Hindutva especially beginning with the Rajiv Gandhi government when the Sangh parivar decided to launch a movement for the mobilization of Hindus around the emotive issue of the Ram temple at Ayodhya. Since Rajiv Gandhi was somewhat vulnerable on the Bofors gun bribe issue, his government compromised with the custodians of the Ram janambhoomi movement from 1986 to 1989. He agreed to the ‘opening of locks’ of the so-called temple, as also the ‘shilanayas’ for the construction of the Ram temple. Moreover, he launched his 1989 election campaign from Ayodhya with a slogan that the Congress would establish ‘Ram Rajya’.
The story does not end here. The P.V. Narasimha Rao government carried the coffin of secularism on its shoulders when the Babri mosque was destroyed on 6 December 1992. Every concession and compromise by the Congress party legitimized and strengthened the forces of Hindutva, creating the ground in the 1990s to help Vajpayee become prime minister from 1998 to 2004. Has the Congress learnt any lessons from its own past and can it be trusted to really stand up against Hindu communalism? Similarly, many state-level regional parties, leaders and groups have not hesitated to share power with the BJP at the centre and often the non- and anti-Congress politics of many political groups has directly or indirectly benefited the forces of Hindutva. Is it thus reasonable to expect that the Congress along with the coalition partners of the UPA and the Communist bloc will fight their enemy number one, i.e. Hindutva.
Since the ideology of Hindutva is socially embedded, it is essential to create a social milieu which is hospitable and conducive to the growth of secular forces in India and weaken the appeal of religion-based parties and politics. The Hindu Joint Family of the Sangh parivar has been able to grow in many areas of Indian public and cultural life, even succeeding in reaching the remote ‘tribal areas’ of many states. There can be various reasons for the acceptance of an ideology by different social groups at different moments in history. What is difficult to deny is that the Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad et al have succeeded in their ‘ideological enterprise’ because a large section of society of the deprived people are not only willing to listen to the votaries of Hindutva, but are ready to take to the streets in defence of causes like cow slaughter, conversion of Hindus to other religions and so on. The ‘kar sevaks’ of the Sangh parivar are prepared to violate the law of the land and make any personal sacrifice to achieve the goals of Hindu rahstravadis.
It bears reiteration that the backward-looking, socially regressive and destructive ideology of Hindutva has become acceptable at a time when a large section of the poor are victims of ‘great social pessimism’ because they have no opportunity to play a socially useful role. The socially abandoned children of India seem to have found solace in the ideology of Hindutva and to defeat this ideology the secularists have to offer an ‘alternative social programme’ which can create ‘meanings’ in the life of the downtrodden and deprived working masses. The UPA government can weaken communalism if it follows the ‘left of centre’ programme as mentioned in the CMP. If the ‘unemployment’ of the youth is not tackled and a direct attack on ‘poverty’ not undertaken, right-wing Hindutva will strengthen.
In a labour surplus economy, employment generating schemes must be encouraged and undertaken. The CMP mentions about 100 days of guaranteed employment per household as also refers to a pubic programme of food security. If the Manmohan Singh-led government can vigorously implement these two pro-poor and pro-vulnerable programmes, a feeling of ‘wantedness’ can be created among the millions who are hungry and unemployed. ‘Economic reforms with a human face’ can become a reality only if the direction of economic development is left of centre.
What is the likelihood of such polices by the UPA coalition government? The focus has to be on the Congress because it has a pre-eminent position in the coalition government. The Congress in post-Independence India has shown that it can be pushed to right of centre or left of centre policies depending upon the pressures generated. Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao believed that the majority Hindu sentiment should not be hurt and that it is politically prudent to practice ‘soft Hindutva’ to keep the Hindus away from the ‘real Hindutva’ of the Sangh parivar and the votaries of Ram temple. Alternatively, Indira Gandhi projected herself as ‘left of centre’ and succeeded both in liquidating her opponents in the Congress party as also attracting the support of the Communists and socialists for her ‘so-called’ radical socio-economic programmes. 2004 has again provided an opportunity to the Communist bloc to push the Congress towards left of centre programmes. The party has to be reminded that left of centre is a Nehruvian tradition in which struggle for secularism is integrally linked with the struggle for social justice and an equitable social order. Communalism cannot be opposed by ignoring social needs and requirements of the poor.
A note of caution. The left of centre CMP will meet resistance from the ruling classes. They manipulated a crisis in the sensex and stock exchange on the plea that the Communist bloc constitutes a threat to the interests of the capitalist classes. The foreign and Indian media regularly highlight that the association of the left bloc would lead to the derailment of prudent economic policies of growth and encourage serious fiscal crisis because of populist and subsidy-oriented pro-poor policies advocated by the left. Just two representative statements may be mentioned here to substantiate the argument that the ruling classes through their actions in stock exchange and the media spokesmen have put the Manmohan Singh government on notice. The Hindustan Times commented: ‘On May 28 and 31, 2004 the UPA unveiled its common minimum programme…how the government would manage the twin objectives of higher growth and social welfare with the door shut on privatisation, the government’s fiscal deficit looked like it would increase…’ The Statesman echoed the same skepticism: ‘Create jobs in India’s village is the economically and politically sensible answer. How will these jobs be created? There’s, really, only one way and the left supported ruling alliance cannot go the road without coming apart at the joints. The policies that act as a glue, the kind leaking out of the Common Minimum Programme, are unfortunately not of much help in creating a lot of jobs for the poor.’ Association of the left bloc with the CMP of the UPA has been projected as a sure recipe for economic disaster of India by most of the media. Is it too much to expect from the votaries of secular politics that they will confront their well-entrenched enemies?
Understanding polls and predictions
OPINION and exit polls remained at the centre of media attention both during the 2004 election and after, though for different reasons and with a difference in our attitude towards them. The media attention on polls was heightened by the attempt initiated by the Election Commission to ban opinion polls and exit polls. It witnessed on the one hand a unanimous agreement among various political parties in favour of the ban and, on the other, a near unanimous expression of disapproval of the ban from the media houses.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to ban the exit poll in the recently concluded elections notwithstanding, many have suggested that media must exercise restraint in publishing them during the election process. However, both the visual and print media in the country was vying with each other to inform the public with the latest status of each political party with respect to the seats they would eventually win. It was precisely for these predictions that the pollsters were once again in the spotlight, though this time as the underdogs.
In the above context it may be worthwhile to critically examine the implications of opinion and exit polls for democracy. Though there was some debate on this in the media itself but sadly most arguments seem to centre around the primacy of ‘evidence’ and ‘facts’ in support of either the camps that condemn the purported ban or welcome such a ban, reflecting a ‘positivist’ prejudice that worships ‘facts’ as a ‘holy cow’. It is not that there were no theoretical justifications for the arguments; for instance the media took up cudgels on behalf of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression in protesting against the move. However, with regard to opinion and exit polls there is more at stake in a democracy than what is captured by factual ‘evidence’.
The political parties as well as the Election Commission were of the opinion that in a polity where the electoral process gets completed not in one stretch but in different phases, the publication of exit polls considerably affects the outcome in those segments of the polity where the electoral process is still underway. While this apprehension may not have the backing of empirical evidence, it nevertheless cannot be easily dismissed. In a recent survey on behalf of NDTV-Indian Express, it was pointed out that around 9% voters decided whom they should vote for only on the polling day and close to 20% voters made their decision during the week before polling day. It is possible, at least in these cases, that the decision to vote for a particular candidate or a party was influenced by the result of exit polls.
One argument in defence of the opinion polls was that the net effect of polls on election results is negligible as the ‘bandwagon effect’ is counterbalanced by the ‘underdog’ effect.1 The evidence for this is based on a survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies during the 2003 assembly elections in Delhi. To arrive at a firm conclusion on the basis of a ‘meticulous’ survey in one region, however representative of the electorate that region may be, is unscientific precisely because the ‘initial conditions’ that have a role in effecting such a net result need not always obtain in a dynamic electorate.
Other arguments exonerate polls by claiming that voters are more influenced by other conditions like party loyalty, quality of the candidate and certainly caste and religion (also ethnicity!) than what the exit poll or opinion polls state.2 So eventually polls seem to be a harmless curiosity of the psephologists. Arguing positively, some claim that opinion polls deepen democracy by opening up channels of communication and information among voters who are otherwise entirely dependent on what the politicians say3 and thus enrich our understanding of the democratic process in terms of why people vote the way they do.4 Of course, those who vouch by evidence will not buy these arguments as only a minuscule proportion of the voters are aware of these opinion polls.5 This suggests that evidence in itself is inconclusive and we may need to go well beyond ‘facts’ to understand the implications of polls.
Unlike an opinion poll, the forecast of election results seems to be integral to an exit poll as its very purpose is the projection of a particular party as emerging victorious or another party as likely to lose well ahead of the actual declaration of the results. In a state where the voting is yet to be completed, such forecasts can be considered as interfering with the electoral process. The seriousness of this interference in fact is derived from the presumed scientific status of exit polls. If akin to mere speculation of columnists or wishful thinking of politicians, the public would have treated such claims with the contempt they deserve.
Besides the bandwagon and underdog effects, such exit polls may also cause ‘voter indifference’. If voters were to know that how they vote is of little consequence to the final outcome (given that the exit polls have already declared the winner) it is likely that many of them may think of their efforts as futile and choose not to exercise their right to vote. Of course, this does not affect the voter whose loyalties are primarily with a particular contestant than with a particular party, since it is not always that party loyalty translates into loyalty to a candidate who contests on the party ticket or vice versa.
Those who still insist on ‘evidence’ for voter indifference may turn to the 1980 presidential elections in the United States, where the eastern and central parts had already voted while the polling was in process on the West coast. The exit polls in the U.S. predicted that Ronald Reagan would win the election, irrespective of the voting pattern on the West coast. When the voters heard this news, widely published in the media, many decided not to exercise their franchise.6
However, this line of argument leaves the issue of opinion polls, which are different from exit polls, completely untouched. Though both types of polls are primarily based on sabda pramana (verbal testimony), between opinion and exit polls there is many a slip as ‘intending to do’ something is not the same as ‘doing it’. The argument of those who oppose opinion polls – that the publication of the same once the election process commences would distort the electoral choice – does not cut deep enough. It presumes that only political parties and their agents have the right to influence the electoral choice of voters. Similarly, the argument that such surveys do not correctly reflect the opinion of the electorate too is not good enough to demand a ban as one could always improve the methodology to better capture, of course within a probability limit, the opinion. This prompts one to think about what is really wrong with the opinion polls. One interesting view expressed in the media invites us to look at the entire issue in the light of the possibility that opinion polls may eventually formally replace elections once the objectivity and scientificity of such surveys is granted.7 I wish to argue that even if polls do not replace elections, they may offset the electoral process. My argument essentially has to do with understanding opinion and exit polls as part of a ‘technosocial science’.
The entire exercise at prediction of election results on the basis of opinion and exit polls may be understood as the expression of a branch of one social science discipline, namely Political Science, to be as rigorously ‘scientific’ as possible. Of course, the criterion of being ‘scientific’ is dictated by Positivism. This explains the craze for polls and predictions even among reputed political scientists in the academia and not just in the media. The threat to democracy caused by predictions on the basis of scientific polls, they may well argue, ensues only if we replace elections with surveys; but surely one may be allowed to predict the election results if there is no such provision for replacing elections with surveys. After all, they may ask, is it not the prerogative of a discipline to be ‘scientific’?8
Here then is the central point. Even when elections are not formally replaced with surveys, such surveys may hamper a crucial aspect of elections, namely its characteristic of spontaneity and status of concrete reality as an event. The life-world reality is a social construction by the agents/actors. The everyday life of people as played out in the social world is spontaneous in the sense that it is self-generated. This is not to deny that in the life-world there are no structural or institutional constraints; rather they must be understood as generated by the social actors, both intentionally and unintentionally. In order to understand social reality one must also reckon with the unintended consequences of action. A survey/poll, as against an election, is an abstraction of the ‘life-world’ reality. A Phenomenological understanding of science claims that every science is a theoretical construction by way of abstracting from the life-world. With this process of abstraction through ‘mathematization,’ science replaces the life-world reality.9 Here it is pertinent to recall the Feyerabendian concern of ‘defending society against science’.10 The rationale for doing away with polls and predictions echoes the concern to protect the life-world reality especially when it threatens to sideline democracy. ‘In a democratic society,’ Feyerabend remarks, ‘scientists may be consulted on various important issues but the final decision must be left to the people.’
With regard to the eagerness of pollsters to predict the election results, I wish to suggest that what hampers elections are not predictions per se but what may be termed, following the sociologist of science Bruno Latour, as ‘Technosocial Science’. If Latour’s notion of ‘technoscience’11 is one that takes shape inside a laboratory, the new ‘technosocial science’ is one that has been created with the help of statistical tools applied to the data culled from the social world and displayed in the ‘media labs’. The product of technoscience is not a ‘natural’ object. The object thus produced in the laboratory acquires the status of reality. As Latour says, laboratories now define reality. One just has to look around to see how scientists have created ‘virtual realities’ all over the perceptual world. It is this aspect of defining reality by the surveys that endangers the election process. In other words, what the surveys collect are the ‘opinions’ and ‘beliefs’ of voters with regard to the approaching election and what the opinion poll does eventually is to define the election and thereby create ‘reality’. It indeed is to pre-empt an event which otherwise is brought to existence by the voters and in that process scuttle a crucial aspect of elections in a democratic set up. The irony is that it happens in the name of democratic ideals like freedom of expression and the right to practice any profession.
* I wish to thank my colleagues Dr. P.K. Sudarsan and Manish Kumar Thakur of Goa University, besides Professor Peter R. DeSouza of CSDS, Delhi, for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper. The usual caveat that the errors, factual and conceptual, if any are solely mine, remains.
1. Yogendra Yadav, ‘The case against banning exit and opinion polls’, The Hindu, 9 April 2004.
2. Niraja Gopal Jayal, ‘Voters are moved by other considerations’, The Economic Times, 28 April 2004.
3. Rajeev Dhavan, ‘Opinion polls sustain democracy’, The Hindu, 1 May 2004.
4. Amrit Lal, ‘Should election-time opinion polls be banned?’, The Times of India, 3 April 2004.
5. Yogendra Yadav, op cit. According to him such polls reach only one-third of our citizens as the majority live beyond the reach of the media.
6. Rammanohar Reddy, ‘The case against exit polls’, The Hindu, 2 May 2004. The same event has been referred to in arguing against the proposal to ban the opinion polls and exit polls by suggesting that in spite of this nobody had asked for a ban on polls in the U.S.A as they uphold the value of freedom of speech. See in this regard, Dorab R. Sopariwala: ‘What’s wrong with polls?’, The Times of India, 11 April 2004. This underscores our characterization of ‘evidence’ as indecisive.
7. Mary E. John, ‘Are surveys eclipsing elections?’, The Hindu, 13 April 2004.
8. In any case, they may retort that opinion polls are better than mere speculation and gossip or going to an astrologer to know the future outcome.
9. According to Husserl, the crisis of sciences result from this severance of its relation with the life-world. cf. Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, (Tr.) David Carr, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970.
10. Paul Feyerabend, ‘How to defend society against science’ in Hacking (ed.), Scientific Revolutions, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981, pp. 156-167.
11. Bruno Latour, Science in Action, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.