Make hay, then make way

In her column, Sakuntala Narasimhan reflects how the manifestoes released during election season end up being the means used to lure voters, nothing more.

It’s hot – and I don’t mean the weather. Election fever is spreading, with parties and politicians busy working out strategies that would help them retain (or get to) power.

Politicians in power who drive through signals in official cars with red lights whirling on top and pilot cars ordering all traffic to make way for the VIP, have become suddenly supplicants, appearing with folded hands in roadside hoardings, telling us how keen they are to ‘serve’ us.

Look at the party election manifestoes of last elections, and you will see that they all make near-identical promises in seeking votes – capturing power is the main consideration, not improving people‘s lives.

The Congress manifesto of the last elections in 2008 said, ‘25 kg rice @ Rs 2/kg, and colour TV sets for BPL families – "to empower beneficiaries with knowledge" as a party spokesperson put it, while Siddaramiah added, "Let the poor also have entertainment." Jaffer Sharief said, "TV will provide mass education to the poor." They also promised ‘24-hour power supply to urban and rural areas, improve roads, build houses for the homeless…” the usual stuff that you can predict.

The BJP promised a vision of a ‘prosperous state where women, SC/ST and minorities would have access to basic needs and opportunities for employment to live with dignity.’ The same party went on to demolish housing for the weaker sections at Ejipura, rendering hundreds of

families shelterless, and grabbed land from a destitute’ colony.

The party also talked about rice at Rs 2/kg – tell that to watchman Murugesh who has been running from pillar to post for a ration card, for two years, and is buying 30 kg of rice per month at Rs 30/kg, for his family of five, on a salary of Rs 3,500. The BJP’s manifesto also promised an allowance of Rs 400 per month for the handicapped – tell that to Malini who walks with crutches and has a brother to feed, but cannot get the necessary disability ‘certificate’ from a tahsildar who wants a bribe. Free education for girls till the degree level was another promise – tell that to Sathya and Srilakshmi, two bright young schoolgirls who have just dropped out because their roadside vendor parents cannot afford to buy the stationery the school orders the girls to bring.

We have the information about their corrupt deals, but the average voter is unable to bring in candidate in place of those who have tarnished images.

Safe and ‘adequate drinking water, to all towns and villages’ was also on the list of promises. Tell that to… never mind, you get the point. In a north Bengaluru slum, the BWSSB man opens the valve to release water at the public tap only if the residents bribe him. Adjacent to the slum is a high rise block where a tanker supplies water daily, charging Rs 800 per day, for eight flats.

Promises? I have a thick file of clippings with election time ‘promises’ from various parties. One (from the Congress) even says, ‘poverty will be abolished by 2003.’ The BJP promised also to "strengthen the Lokayukta" while in reality they have tried their best not to appoint one.

From promises of free power and cold storage facilities for farmers and free education for girls at all levels (Loksatta manifesto) to loan waivers to agriculturists, to everything you can think of, all parties trot out promises that are tossed aside the moment they capture power.

Vice-President Hamid Ansari, during a recent visit to the city, suggested that voting should be made compulsory. Does voting ensure that the best persons get elected? This is the question that thousands of concerned and disillusioned citizens are asking now. It is also the reason why many of us, even among the educated urban classes, have shown scant interest in even checking the voters’ list to see if our names are included. "What is the use?" says one senior citizen of south Bengaluru who has seen a dozen election cycles. "In every party, those who seek votes have corruption charges against them, so who do I choose?"

A slum dweller from Rajajinagar says sarcastically and eloquently, "The BJP, Janata Dal, Congress, and now Yeddyurappa’s new party – tell me, we have had different parties in power these last three decades, has it made any difference to people like us? Is anyone seeking votes to improve our lot, honestly, never mind what they promise, once they come to power all they want is to make hay…" . As I said in an earlier comment, the ‘clean’ candidates, without party backings, don’t have clout or funds enough to woo voters, the others work on caste configurations and loyalties, to get elected.

One novel suggestion is that every candidate should have a red as well as a green button beside his/her name on the ballot, and the red negative votes should be subtracted from the green votes to get at a candidate’s standing. If I strongly disapprove of a candidate, I press the red button, and this should be taken into account while counting his total votes. If such reforms have to be carried out, it is those in power who have to sanction such changes – and it is not in their interest to do so. Where does that leave us as voters?

"I did not like any of the party candidates, Congress or BJP or Janata Dal, I voted for the independent, but of course he stood no chance against the clout of the parties, and lost," says another voter. "I liked the candidate of a party but not the party ideology, so what do I do?" quips yet another.

"Information is power," said one coalition of concerned citizens during the last elections ( but does it empower us? Not a day passes without the media exposing some scam or the other involving leaders of different parties. We have the information about their corrupt deals, but the average voter is unable to bring in right candidates in place of those who have tarnished images. Parties choose candidates not on the basis of ‘clean‘ images but on calculations of caste configurations which will win elections.

The Congress now says its poll manifesto will be ‘realistic’ and include ‘only those promises that it can implement.’  However, their priorities include ‘public health, agriculture, drinking water,
education, infrastructure…’ So how is it different from earlier promises? This party has had a morale booster in the recent urban local body election results, but voters often vote to punish the party in power (BJP) rather than actively choosing the Congress (anti-incumbency). Next time around, this batch will be uprooted by a disillusioned electorate, and another brought in. This is the only clout that we as voters have – of uprooting one and choosing another. The politicians don’t mind, because each gets his/her turn to make hay while in power, before making way. If there is a better way, I haven’t found it. Neither have concerned citizens who need to form a critical mass before they can become an effective voice. Till then the tamasha goes on…

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