A couple of weeks after the Mumbai attacks, India and Indians are still fuming. There is this great stirring to action, particularly among the young and the educated, who want to see some change. All this is good, but the big question is how do you take all this energy, this dissatisfaction with the status quo, and convert into constructive action?
The recent US elections had some similar contextual elements to it. A general dissatisfaction with the way the country was being run and a section of the electorate – again, the young and college educated – who were highly motivated to do something about it. But that’s where the similarities with India end. In the US they had in Barack Obama, a leader that they could rally around, who represented that hope for change. In India there is no such leader. Most of the ideas for action that one hears today from the intelligentsia are policy related, rather than politics related. And that is a problem. Real change can’t take place unless governance changes.
The educated, discerning voter in India today is in general, alienated from politics. Indian politics, in their minds, is corrupt and dirty. Not something that honest, good people can survive in. There is no leader that is both clean and inspiring. Indian elections are decided by vested interests and caste politics. Someone who promises hard work and clean politics is not going to get elected.
The root cause of this alienation is that Indian elections are decided by “low information voters” who form a very high percentage of the electorate. But many people thought that the same was true about the US too. An ex-employee of ours in California, who is American, has a PhD, has spent most of her life in a liberal state like California, and is liberal herself, said that neither Obama nor Clinton could ever be elected President, because, regardless of what the polls said, when it came time to press the button in the voting booth, they wouldn’t vote for a woman or a black man. But they did. And that too in decisive victories in largely rural states like Pennsylvania.
How did Obama make that happen? Not just by carrying the black, and the young college educated voters. But by galvanizing a vast volunteer base that became a force multiplier. This volunteer base contributed to his campaign with money, but most importantly with their time. They went to phone banks and called undecided voters to explain Obama’s positions. They never tired of talking to their friends about why Obama was the right choice. And calling in to radio talk shows on politics. And of course the bumper stickers. If each one of them got two others to change their vote, that would have been enough to ensure victory.
In India we need our own political revolution. This has to be led by educated voters who are more discerning, wherever they are. They need to roll up their trousers (or sarees) and wade into the murky waters of Indian politics. They don’t have to become politicians but they must become more engaged. Politics is a contact sport. You can’t bring about change by shouting advice from the stands.
They’ll support the right candidates and the right parties because they have the right qualifications and policy positions. They will advocate the right causes. And use their powers of persuasion with their family and friends. They will talk about local politics, not just national politics because you can’t blame the Prime Minister for the state of the road in front of your house. And they will write letters to the editor and call in to radio shows and TV shows and make a general nuisance of themselves when they are not happy. They will become activist voters.
And some of them will actually go into politics. A friend of mine recently left a successful career in the US and returned to India with the aim of joining politics. I have many friends from college who could have had bright careers in the private sector but chose to go into public service (civil services). Politics today isn’t considered public service. But it should. It will. I have great hope.
Photo by Elika and Shannon