The Indian Express, in the lead editorial on January 26, has criticised the concept of negative voting and says it smacks of a negative attitude to politics rather than a constructive attitude to reform.
Well, perhaps it is. Or is it?
The issue of negative voting has been in the public domain for long. But what many people did not know was that it is possible. Just before the 2004 elections, the Indian Liberal Group, of which I am a member, put out a note telling people exactly how to go and register a negative vote. Several ILG members in Mumbai exercised it.
I am completely taken up by the idea of negative voting. For several elections now, I have stopped voting according to parties, because I feel there is absolutely no difference between the Congress and the BJP (those are the only two choices for me). Therefore, I have gone entirely by the candidates they have put up. I believe it is important to get people with integrity and people who will perform into the various levels of elected bodies. (Voting for the sundry other candidates has never been an option for me because I don’t know them or what they represent; also quite a few are absolutely shady or frivolous characters.) Sometimes the choices have been very clear because of the outstanding nature of the candidates concerned. But sometimes I have been hard put to choose between the two parties because the candidates have been equally lacklustre but also have not evoked extreme negative reactions and thus warranted a negative vote. In such cases I have voted for one or the other out of instinct, which has not been proved wrong.
But what would I do if I had to choose between a Sajjan Kumar of the Congress (a key accused in the 1984 riots and who had been seen leading the rioters and who arranged for a huge crowd to come and protect him when the police came for him sometimes in the 1990s) and Narendra Modi (ok, he’s not from Delhi, but you get the point)? What do I do if my choice is between D P Yadav, Pappu Yadav, Taslimuddin and Mohd. Shahbuddin or sundry other criminals wanted for rape, murder, extortion, kidnapping etc.? Between Ram Vilas Paswan and Laloo Yadav, who have no compunction about fanning casteist and communal sentiments (if you’re wondering how I can call these two communal – a term we have all reserved for the BJP – that will be a subject of a subsequent piece)? Between Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi (both condoning corruption and indulging in casteist politics)? Or, assuming that I vote on the basis of ideology and not individuals, what if there is no party that represents my ideology of a free and open society?
I could stay away from voting. But I am told it is my duty to vote. But it is also my duty to vote responsibly. So my conscience is torn between two conflicting duties. The only way I can fulfil both duties is a negative vote.
Now the Indian Express argues that this is `middle class dissatisfaction with politics’ that `should not be confused with dissatisfaction in general.’ It also says the purpose of elections is `to elect a government, not simply express vague dissatisfaction.’
Vague dissatisfaction? The Indian Express grossly underestimates the extent of discontent that is seething under the calm middle class exterior. Someone (either Surjit Bhalla or TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan) had written about the middle class seceding from India (I will be writing on that too at some stage) and I think this is an extremely serious problem which papers like the Indian Express are glossing over.
In any case, how are ordinary people to express dissatisfaction? They can write letters to the editor, but how many can be published? Taking to the streets is an option, but is that a desirable one? The vote is the only weapon people have.
The editorial says `negative dissatisfaction is not an answer to the question of who should rule’. But who rules you (specifically, the quality of who rules you) determines how you are ruled. And voting is the only way for you to decide the quality of your elected representatives. If you elect good men and women to your local body/state assembly/parliament, your level of dissatisfaction will also go down.
There are, we are told, several other ways to express dissatisfaction. One of them is not turning up for election. But going to the polling booth and registering a protest vote also ensures that someone else doesn’t go and vote in your name, something that happens all the time.
A negative vote is one way for people to show that, yes, they have a stake in and believe in the system but want a change in the way it operates. I don’t think there’s anything negative about that. It’s far more positive and constructive than merely going and voting without applying one’s mind. It signals a desire for reform. When I say, through my vote, that I will not vote for X,Y,Z or A,B,C, I am saying we need better people in politics.
The editorial does not suggest what should be a positive or constructive attitude to political reform. (Well, it does talk about enabling more people to run for public office, but I don’t think there is anything barring you and me from standing for elections.) One way would be for people who are dissatisfied to get into politics. But not everyone (and this cuts across social and income groups) has the time/money/stamina or inclination for politics to do this. Does that mean that they should reconcile themselves to being ruled by thugs, fanatics or simply incompetent and corrupt people?
A negative vote is a compromise path between armchair fulminations and time-consuming activism. It may not be the best option but is the only one available now.