April 25, 2009
“Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.” – George Bernard Shaw.
“The oppressed are allowed every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and oppress them”. - Karl Marx.
Now that we are in the midst of elections, there are many issues concerning elections which need to be focused on. One of them is not voting out of ignorance, indifference or sheer laziness. This is a perennial problem dating back to the ancient Greek civilization when Aristotle had defined the non-voter as “Idiot”. Not much improvement since if we read between these lines:
“Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote.” –George Jean Nathan.
“In every election some good candidate receives the solid backing of all the good people who don’t vote”. –Herbert V. Prochnow, Sr.
“America is the land where a citizen will cross the ocean to fight for democracy – and won’t cross the street to vote in the national election.” – Bill Voughan.
Beyond non-voting is the problem of buying and selling of votes with cash and kind – sarees, biryanis, boose and even jewelry – what is caught and publicized being the tip of the iceberg. But, that is not an Indian monopoly, as reflected in the following:
The freeman casting, with unpurchased hand,
The vote that shakes the turrets of the land.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes.
I have just received the following telegram from my generous Daddy. It says, “Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide”. – John F. Kennedy.
Then there is an intellectual argument for not voting. Dr. Michael Lobo, Mangalorean author of many books, argues that as an apolitical person, not knowing the issues and candidates involved in the election, he is morally justified in not voting. It is not a new discovery, as the following lines reflect:
“People have to think. Thinking isn’t to agree or disagree. That is voting”. – Robert Frost.
“I voted for Buchanan because I didn’t know him and I voted against Fremont because I didn’t know him.” – Ulysses S. Grant.
That raises the question of party or individual. It was said of the monopolistic Congress of the first two decades after Independence that if it put up a lamp post for election, it would win hands down. That syndrome is also not India’s monopoly.
I always voted at my party’s call.
And never thought of thinking myself at all!
It is in this context that Lily Tomlin says: “Ninety percent of the adults in this country are decent, hard-working, honest Americans. It’s the other lousy two percent that get all the publicity. But then – we elected them”. No wonder Josh Billings declares: “Vote: the instrument and symbol of a free man’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.”
Reverting to Dr. Lobo, his non-voting because of being apolitical seems intellectual arrogance or simplicity or innocence. But, he has a point. He doesn’t think that universal suffrage is superior to any other form of government. “In fact I will now propose what I believe would be a better form of democracy than universal suffrage. Let us begin with the premise that voting is a serious responsibility. I would like to draw a parallel with driving a vehicle. Driving a vehicle on a public road is a serious responsibility and, obviously, a person cannot be issued with a driving licence merely because he has attained the age of 21. He must first demonstrate to the satisfaction of an expert that he possesses the ability to drive on a public road. Likewise, I suggest, that a person be permitted to vote only after he (or she) has convinced a panel of experts that he possesses at least some basic knowledge of politics and governance. The test could take the form of a written examination or even an oral interview for the benefit of persons who are illiterate. Persons who pass the test could be issued a lifelong voting licence.
The advantages of such a system leap to the eye. For one thing, it would be far more difficult for corrupt politicians to build up large vote bank from among the illiterate masses. Moreover, persons who have earned their voting licence will have the satisfaction of knowing that their vote will now carry much more weight. And candidates for election may now find time to make personal visits to those members of their constituency who have earned their voting licence.”
I think Dr. Lobo has a point here. Take, for instance, this story, real or apocryphal, of a farmer telling another of his tribe: “My son is married for two years and yet has no issue. I am told Rajiv Gandhi is the ruler in Delhi. What kind of a ruler is he if my daughter-in-law can’t conceive for two years?” That is the kind of ignoramus, who can’t differentiate between the impotence of his son or sterility of his daughter-in-law and the responsibility of the country’s ruler, has the same one vote as a Ph.D.
File picture for illustration purpose only
But, universal franchise is basic to our Constitution and the foundation of our democratic polity. Such franchise was secured through centuries of struggle. We cannot snatch it away now. Let the poor, illiterate and ignorant earn their cash, biryanis, boose and other freebees against promise of votes at election time. But, we can give extra weightage to qualified voters like a graduate, post-graduate or doctorate. Similarly, a doctor, engineer or other professionals can have extra/multiple votes, depending on the basic degrees and specializations they hold. A tax payer should have extra votes because he finances the government. For instance, there should be one extra vote for every Rs. 1000 paid in taxes. This will also apply to corporate tax payers. The principle is that the one who pays the piper should call the tune. Then the corporates – who generate national income and employment - will have a powerful tool to fashion national policies – instead of lobbying and bribing babus as now. One can think of so many other categories of persons eligible for multiple votes – the couples who restrict their progeny to two, the one who taps solar power or harvests rain water, the foreign exchange earner, the inventor, national awardees, sports achiever, writers, creative artists, etc. What weightage to be given to whom and how to implement it is a matter of detail that can be handled by computer software. If this is done, we won’t have one-eyed as kings in the kingdom of the blind.
The subject has many dimensions and is open to many views. What are yours? Over to you.
John B. Monteiro, author and journalist, is editor of his website www.welcometoreason.com (Interactive Cerebral Challenger).