Now that the elections are nearly over, can we stop playing ‘Citizens For A Day’?

Elections always send Indians into a tizzy. Despite the poor track record of those contesting the elections, voters' faith in them seems quite unwavering. Why is that so? Is it time to look inwards?

The silly season is upon us. It is an endless cycle that repeats every few years. It is the season when we, the people of India, get breathless with excitement:

You must vote! It is the sacred duty of every citizen in a democracy to vote.

If you don’t vote, then you are not a patriotic citizen, and you lose your right to have a public voice.

Your vote is important. The person / party that you elect will frame policies that will determine the future of our country.

It is the season when we pull out from the dusty closets of our minds the words ‘duty’, ‘democracy’, ‘nation’, ‘policy’, ‘patriotism’, ‘citizenship’ and others that have been lying forgotten since the last time this circus came around. It is the time when we willingly, indeed eagerly, switch off our memories, suspend our thinking faculties and start believing blindly in Superman.

Not the Superman who wears a funny blue body suit with a red cape, but the many Supermen who are currently wearing white clothes and slick smiles and flying busily around our country promising everything to everybody who they think may vote for them in the coming weeks.

Who are these Supermen and how are they doing?

Our Supermen are the people with folded hands, smiling at us from every wall, every hoarding and sometimes from railway tickets and airline boarding passes, showering us with promises they have no ability or intentions to keep. Like all good Supermen, no laws apply to them, neither the laws of the land nor the laws of gravity. And they are doing very well themselves, as a brief look at one small subset, the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19) reveals.

  • They are paid extremely well. In the current Lok Sabha, 545 MPs were paid salaries and perks amounting to Rs. 1,554 crores over the four years commencing in 2014-15.  This works out to Rs. 71.29 lac per head per year, against India’s average per capita income of Rs. 1.13 lacs in 2018. Our MPs are paid 63 times as much as the average Indian earns.
  • Once their term as MP ends, they are paid a pension for life, which is set at a minimum of Rs. 25,000 per month. This is applicable to “every person who has served for any period as a Member of the Provisional Parliament or either House of Parliament”. Note the phrase, “served for any period”. No other government or private service is this generous with its employees, but it is a small price we pay for the life of service to which our Supermen have dedicated themselves.    

Not surprisingly, all this largesse makes our Supermen very wealthy. And they are ready to take the steps necessary to safeguard and grow the wealth acquired in their service to the nation.  

In return for all this, what do we, the citizens of India get?

Let us look at where our Supermen have led our country over the years. We will focus on basic indicators, which impact large sections of our population, and reflect the true outcomes of leadership and governance.

  • In the 2018 Global Hunger Index, India ranks 103 among  119 qualifying countries. As the Report notes, “With a score of 31.1, India suffers from a level of hunger that is serious.
  • In the 2017 Human Development Index, India ranks 130 out of 189 countries, right below Tajikistan and Namibia. In the Gender Inequality Index, we are 127.  Many other core indicators on education, employment and poverty are available at the above link.
  • And how are we doing on income equality, which is a key metric for any government, especially that of a developing economy? Really badly, it turns out. The Gini coefficient (which measures income distribution) was at an all-time high of 51.4 for India in 2017, and it is only getting worse. In 2017, it was estimated by Credit Suisse that the richest 1% of Indians held 58% of India’s wealth. And yet we complain about the British looting our country!

So, the answer to the question about what we get from our Supermen is: The Rich get Richer (including our Supermen, of course), and the Devil takes the Poor.

Then why do we believe in Supermen?

There are probably many reasons why we continue to perpetuate this destructive cycle, but several pointers emerge readily from the evidence all around us.

As a people, we love the concepts of democratic government and citizenship. But we collectively fail to see that in a democracy, power rests with the citizens and the rule is of the law. What makes a democratic system work is the daily exercise of civic and social responsibilities by ALL its citizens.

This requires us to first understand that ‘Government’ is not limited to the few hundred people elected to one body or another – Parliament, State Assemblies or municipal and local bodies. It is the entire machinery of the State that is set up to legislate laws, implement them and resolve disputes arising therefrom.

Government has hundreds of arms and functions and millions of people employed in fulfilling them – education and health care, taxation, labour welfare, judiciary, police, electricity, military, railways, energy, water supply, garbage disposal, financial bodies and so many more. On a daily basis, then, it is our duty as citizens to engage with all the arms of the government we encounter and to hold them and ourselves equally accountable in all our interactions.

By engage, I mean that we need to start following rules and not jump at the infamous jugaad that we rely on for everything. When we run into the inevitable bureaucratic obstruction or corruption, we must stand up and fight, and not just cave in. We will lose some battles, but as more of us fight and the more often we fight, we will start winning some too.

We need to engage with our civic environments – do not litter or spit in public, do not dump debris in the nearest empty plot or lake, pay taxes in full and on time, work with local bodies to solve local problems. In short, there is no alternative to rolling up our sleeves and getting down to work. The delivery of good governance is our collective responsibility and the only way it will happen is when we start to assume the responsibility and fulfill it, every single day.

But this is not how we behave. Instead, we firmly believe that we don’t need to lift a finger, and that the ‘Government’ will magically solve our problems just because we cast our vote. This is exactly the reason why our problems never go away, and neither does bad Government.

The sad reality is that we are happy at playing ‘Citizens For A Day’, and content to be doormats the rest of the time. The British left a long time ago, but we never noticed it, and continue to behave like subjects of a colonial empire instead of citizens of a democracy.

So, let’s tone down the election hysteria and vote if we must. But far more importantly, let’s take a moment to reflect on what it means to be a citizen, and whether we are ready to become one.

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