The curious ‘political’ behaviour of the ‘silent majority’

In the realm of politics of change of ruling dispensations in a modern democracy like India, a number of times during the last 40 years or so (starting with the 1977 post-emergency parliament elections, then in 1980, 1989, 1999, 2004 and 2014 parliament elections and several state assembly elections in between), one is familiar with almost a tsunami like behaviour of people’s voting pattern, decisively expressing a predominant feeling of disenchantment and anger, silently and in hardly in any open coordination among themselves. Not just expressing a disapproval for the incompetence of the incumbent, on some occasions like in the case of the recent (2014) parliament elections, they voted in a way so as to bring about a stable government by bestowing absolute majority to a political party (Bharatya Janata Party or the BJP) claiming to usher in a paradigm change in governance. Similar clear positive choices were made in favour of the BJP led coalition (NDA) in 1999 and the Congress party led coalition (UPA) in 2009. It is another matter that in both these latter instances the coalitions of political parties did not quite live up to the expectation of what they claimed to achieve when they embarked on their journey.

Thus the ‘silent majority’ of people have been known to assert themselves and give a decisive expression of their thinking and wishes (often displaying considerable political awareness and sagacity), though only sporadically and under objective conditions ripe for cataclysmic changes. However, between these changes, the same mass of electorate have been, more often than not, put through the ordeal of multifarious oppression and they have silently tolerated lies, hypocrisy, messy and corrupt statecraft with both the state and the non-state actors dictating, manipulating the agenda of governance. The contrast between the two sets of behaviour (‘political’ during elections, ‘apathetic’ if not ‘apolitical’ rest of the time) could not have been more contrasting.

Actually, however, the choice of silence or the apparent display of apathy does not automatically signify depoliticisation. This could also be a strategic disengagement based on a fairly realistic assessment of the weakness and the limited effectiveness of our democratic institutions of governance. It is not as if the daily deficit of governance escapes people’s attention or does not stir their disappointment and anger. But instead of open show of their disaffectation and protest, which might entail further and naked attack on their residual democratic rights by those who have sworn by the Constitution to protect these rights, many might choose to accumulate their negative assessment, which would eventually grow into a mighty mountain of incumbency for the ruling ensemble at the election time on the next occasion.

We would like to mention another instance of a significant disconnect between what people know or say (i.e., articulate their apparent opinion) about the political leaders and how they make their choices from among these personages to man the legislative bodies and who would eventually rule their lives in many ways. For the last several years the Indian politicians from various political parties have, unfortunately, come to be looked upon by the general public to be lacking in moral fiber, opportunistic and characterized by extreme venality. This feeling is more stridently expressed within the urban population in metro cities and towns, but is also generally accepted almost as a fact of life in the rural India. It is also not a secret to the people belonging to various caste groups in Indian villages and towns raucously supporting the leaders and the champions of the corresponding caste based parties in trying to extract concessions from the government in terms of reservations in education and employment, that whatever little benefits accrue from these dogged political struggles for years are mostly cornered by the ‘creamy layers’ of these groupings (the richer and the more influential among them) and the families, relatives and close associates of these leaders. The benefits hardly percolate downward to the masses facing the actual deprivation and degraded existence under the caste-related oppression and exclusion.

Despite these generally accepted empirical observations about the corrupt and the casteist political leaders (add to these the leaders who use criminal manpower to protect and perpetuate their domain of influence), the Indian electorate have, time and again during many recent elections, elected such leaders, sometimes with thumping majority, in preference to new, transparently cleaner candidates. It is as if criminality, corruption, dishonesty which many urban civil society groups and some new political formations like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are obsessed with, do not count as disqualifying factors for the masses.

An explanation of this counterintuitive behaviour may lie in the deeper assessment by the apparently backward, often illiterate and oppressed masses about the flawed edifice of democracy in operation leading to distancing themselves from the urbanized and elitist view of the same. In absence of a concrete and verifiable assurance about the stability, solidity and a longer term perspective about the more idealistic and morally correct imperative dictated by this latter view point, people have this gut sense about the basic structure of inequality prevailing in our society and polity for all these sixty odd years since the political independence from the British. Cutting across political dispensations the ruling elites have only changed their costumes, colours, dialogues depending on whether they are occupying the throne or are engaged in upstaging another occupant of the same. This charade of being on the side of truth, morality, decency and honesty has been going on far too long without any substantial change of the basic conditions of deprivation, lack of social equity, denial of justice. Meanwhile people have to survive.

If the institutionalised corruption happens to be a known valve or switch that enables one to the next stage of attainment of whatever facility a nominal welfare state claims to deliver – work under rural employment schemes, old age pension, food subsidy in various forms, etc., or lubricate the wheels of an antediluvian state machinery and the passage through the labyrinthine legal system, they had better use it. In the dog-eat-dog game of survival and escape from unemployment (or a disguised one), penury and destitution, if the constitutional provision for positive discrimination in the form of reservation in jobs and education provides a miniscule hope, those who peddle this utopia become the real heroes, their casteism their badge of honour, howsoever corrupt or self-seeking they are known to be. And the level-playing field argument of the anti-reservationists appears as an act of villainy, the barely disguised subterfuge of the upper caste elites who had their way for the major part of the history of the free India with little sign of real society-wide leveling of the field either in terms of aspirations or their fulfillment.

Thus the devastating swing in the electorate preference is a conscious strategic political decision, and it may have been building up, silently, sometimes belying the opinion and the exit polls and often exposing the limitations of the elitist assumptions about the social reality at the ground level: the migration and the communication-driven aspiration of the poor and the lower middle class majority in rural and small town India of the late twentieth and the twenty first century.

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