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Mistaking Media (ted) Democracy for the Real Thing

April 9, 2019
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By Sreedeep

The world’s largest democracy is going to vote soon. The screens we watch are full of infographics and statistical predictions. Let me take a different route.

Let us follow a character from the margins of the city. Meet SalimLangde (it is just an alias; you may imagine any other character that suits the role, or one you are familiar with). Let us ask him a simple question – why does he have to vote? His fraught relationship with this voting ritual will reveal a lot about the state of our democracy.

Soon after the election dates were declared, SalimLangde (my car mechanic) developed a sudden desperation to go back to his village so that he could vote. His village is several hundred miles away from Delhi. When I asked him why he has to vote, he explained his compulsions. If he does not vote, his name might be wiped off the voter’s list. It is better to obediently plan a trip in advance to cast his vote, even if it dents his savings, and entails travelling in an unreserved compartment over three days, across three states.

Why does he need to take so much pain to prove his status as a responsible voter? Why do millions like him leave home and come to big cities in search of work? How does the metropolis employ informal workers, who live on the fringes of the city? How does the arrogant city make use of their limbs? What sort of compromises does Salim have to make to earn a living?
And most importantly, why travel thousands of miles to ensure that one’s name does not perish from the electoral records?

These are some questions that this nation does not want to know. They are too mundane for star anchors conducting primetime spectacles. They and their viewers forget to remember electoral promises; they will not even find time to vote.

Is ‘voting’, the only entitlement, Salim is left with?

Like yet another IPL, the parliamentary puppet show will continue to amuse its spectators. We will consciously keep ducking questions that are central to the wellbeing of a democracy:

Is the right to vote the first and last thing Salim is left with as a citizen? Other than offering him the right to choose an electoral candidate, which other rights is he entitled to? What does this system give him and what does it extract in return?

Does Salim have the ability to understand that this periodic voting ritual is just one of many democratic rights? And if others rights remain unfulfilled forever, then how signficant is his right or duty to vote?

Do we facilitate a consciousness in him that ‘democracy’ is much larger than elections and its campaigns? Can SalimLangde question his existence or reflect on the conditions that make him socially disabled?

When large sections of the society remain impoverished, unequipped, and illiterate, voting turns out to be a self-defeating formality. Asking or begging for votes, dividing and manipulating votes on the basis of caste-class alliances become the pivot of this operation. Such a model is unable to provide anything other than voting rights to its population.

The point is: no democracy has ever been successful without offering dignity to its citizens.

Democracy’s success story all over the world is linked to serious interventions on matters of universal health, education and commitment to inclusive growth. Our election-obsessive model is quite different. It mostly begins and ends with voting rituals. In between, we are exposed to a series of full-page policy advertisements in national dailies.

Salim will keep voting, time and again. He will believe in the emancipatory promises of ‘good days’, or fear that his name will disappear from voter lists. Different symbols and colours will arrive at his doorstep to campaign. This is the only time in five years that he will encounter the face of democracy. He will get a free supply of intoxicants and other freebies may follow.

Mandirs, Mandals, Mazdoors, Mother Nation, McDowell’s, McDonalds, Mastercard, Mercedes will keep flashing on our Jio-mediated screens of navigation.

Each of these commodities will attract different constituencies – such is the rule of this sacred game.

In an era of Aadhar-linked consumer citizenship, we will become objects of verification. Under these pessimistic circumstances, a cynic will find the subject for his next article. Anchors will manufacture breaking news every hour.

The democratic game of thrones will offer a nail-biting finish on screens of various dimensions.

Air strikes will keep us on the edge of media(ted) arousals. We will get used to claims, and stop asking for proof to show fidelity to this nation.

We must also learn to forget. Dogfights in the air will ensure that democracy fast-forgets Godhra, Kathua, Dadri and many such incidents.

Trolls, lynching and various other forms of manufactured disharmonies will appear and disappear. Godmen will justify rape. Defence deal details will disappear. Diamond merchants and liquor barons will disappear too, with huge sums of public money.

And SalimLangde will definitely feel compelled to travel the distance, fearing that his name will disappear from the voter list. Democracy, indeed!
Yet another election!

Some headlines will flash and fade.

Regular head-counts, seat-counts and vote-counts will follow.

Booth captures, manipulations, negotiations, and coalitions will unfold.

Results and oath ceremonies will conclude the democratic drama.

The cyclic dance of democracy will continue to play in loop.

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