Apr 27, 2009

Agreed, hurling shoes is undemocratic, but is committing suicide democratic??

The other day I happened to pass through Meerut district in Uttar Pradesh on my way to Haridwar. Seeing some farmers harvesting wheat, I decided to break my journey and spend some time with them. They were obviously busy and didn't want to be disturbed, but when I introduced myself one of them walked upto me, touched my feet and said he had been reading me for ages.

Anyway, to cut the long story short I reasoned with them that perhaps the real cause behind their plight is that they have not exercised their democratic right of choosing the right candidate through the ballot. Why I asked them this question was because this is the impression you get from reading the newspapers nowadays. Pappu should come out and vote goes the Hindi song, and so does the political leaders and the media who are asking people to exercise their democratic right and elect the right candidate.

"First we voted for Kalyan Singh, and when he did not do anything for us we decided not to vote for him in the next elections. We then voted for Mulayam Singh, and then we voted for Mayavati," replied Kamla, the wife of a village elder. "What is the choice before us, we have to vote for one of them again, and this will not solve our problems."

How true. I wish at least the studio audience in the TV programmes realises this. Over the years, I find the studio audience too has begun to behave like the paid voters or the people you bring in to listen to leaders at times of political rallies. They know what is expected of them, and they deliver it faithfully. They are ferried to Congress rally, and they shout Congress Zindabad slogans. The next week they are at a BJP rally and they do not shy from shouting BJP Zindabad. Similarly, the studio audience also knows what is expected from them, and I must say they know what it means to be politically correct and get their five seconds of fame.

The fundamental question however still remains unanswered. How does 100 per cent voting for instance ensure that we will be able to pick up the best candidate, a deserving candidate, a candidate who is best among the lot, and is at least honest and sincere. Pardon my being sounding politically incorrect, but the fact remains that by asking people to come out and vote in big number we are actually sending a wrong message. We are trying to legitimise (or call it democratise) the election of wrong people for the right job. I mean there is no way your vote can make political parties ensure that they do not field criminals or corrupt candidates. You will continue to have the same set of people to choose from. Your vote will go on legitimising a faulty democratic system. 

I strongly feel that voters must be given an option if they don't want to choose any of the listed candidates in the ballot. Only then we will be able to really purify the democratic systems on the lines we all want to cherish. What is wrong if the ballot paper also has a column which says "None of the above." And if the majority stands for "None of the above", than that constituency should have another round of voting. If that had happened, Kamla wouldn't have faced the dilemma that she is in now. And like her, millions would have sent the present crop of leaders packing, and that would be the real strength of a rich and vibrant democracy.

Why are we shying from doing so? I can understand why the politicians are reluctant to talk of None of the above option, but why should the media analysts be quiet?

And that brings me to another burning issue that many feel is turning out to be an 'unhealthy' and 'undemocratic' trend. I have seen the spate of editorials on Jarnail Singh's bold initiative of hurling his shoe at Mr P Chidambaram, the Home Minister. I am also aware that it will be politically incorrect to admire the trajectory the shoe takes. But notwithstanding what our political leaders (and for some strange reasons the so called enlightened media) believes, the fact remains that the nation is finding it a simple way to express their anger. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh  is the latest witness to a shoe missile, and earlier too it missed P Chidambaram, Navin Jindal and L K Advani.

Politicians across the spectrum say that shoe-throwing is undemocratic. I agree. And I have also seen the comments/opinion/views of various political parties and leaders in a news report in the Hindustan Times today (Politicos call for truce as shoe missiles rain, HT April 27, 2009). Click on this link to read the story: http://www.hindustantimes.com/Election09/storypage.aspx?ID=fce4d9b0-40d3-4b86-8602-3e01a1790d64&Category=Chunk-HT-UI-Elections-SectionPage-OnTheSpot&Headline=Politicos-call-for-truce-as-shoe-missiles-rain&gid=

If shoe hurling is undemocratic, is committing suicide democratic? In the 2004 general elections (correct me if I am wrong), the then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh Mr Chandrababu Naidu witnessed a piquant situation when a farmer stood up in a political rally being addressed by him and and drank pesticides. He died before he could reach the hospital. Imagine, if he had instead thrown his chappal at Mr Naidu. It would have caused commotion in the crowd, and more attention to the cause for which he eventually died. Not only in Andhra Pradesh, famers all over the country have tried to send a strong political signal by taking their own lives. When all democratic norms failed to draw attention, they took their own lives. And they failed here too. The world's largest democracy did not take notice.

Since 1997, the National Crime Records Bureau tells us that over 1.85 lakh farmers have committed suicide. Farmers have taken their lives in the prosperous northern state of Punjab, often referred to as India's granary. In the last 9 years, 2990 farmers have commited suicide is just two districts of Punjab -- in Bathinda and Sangrur. And don't forget, Punjab has 20 districts. In Uttar Pradesh, it has been sugarcane farmers; in Maharashtra cotton growers. Suicides have also been reported from Kerala, West Bangal, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Orissa, and Tamil Nadu.

I always thought that suicide was an undemocratic tool being used by the voiceless to make their voice heard. But what puzzled me was why is that none of the political parties are taking it up as if it was a question of life and death (which you will agree, it is). After all people are dying, using death as an expression of their anger. I always wondered why the enlightened media, which can depute some 450 journalists to cover the Lakme Fashion show, or send an army of reporters and cameramen to cover the IPL cricket in South Africa (as if it is a Mahabharata battle), are not even moved to take up the issue of farmers committing suicide.

Oh ! I forgot, covering cricket and fashion show only is an expression of freedom of press!!

Come to think of it. Wasn't it undemocratic on the part of the politicians as well as the media (which never tires of telling us that it is the Fouth Estate) to ignore human suffering in the crop fields? You have no regrets when the farmer took their own lives but you certainly would have been furious and "want these perpetrators to be booted out of society" if they had instead thrown shoes. Imagine if the 1.85 million had not died but instead flung their chappals/jutis, wouldn't it have been a more civilised form of angst?

Please do not get me wrong. I am not advocating throwing shoes to be a democratic form of dissent. But at the same time, I want you to think, and think deeply, as to why this democracy finds it nothing disturbing when farmers kill themselves just to draw the attention of powers that be to their plight.



Anonymous said...

I would love to see you enter the electoral fray just as Mallika Sarabhai, Meera Sanyal, Prem Singh et al! Dinesh

Anonymous said...

You couldn't have been been more right. I too had been telling friends that there's nothing wrong in what the shoe throwers did, just that except for the Sikh issue (some impact), who really cares.

As for the media, all of us know it is totally commercialised now. And dumbed down. Like the audience they cater to.

I think all schools and colleges should start compulsory stints for students in areas related to development issues because the disconnect city kids of today have with the harsh realities around them is alarming.


Sridhar said...


I have always imagined. What a risk the man, who in a spur of the moment vents out his anger and throws a shoe, takes. Isn't the very act so courageous as a suicide. Yet its so much better. I say let all the farmers indebted and do not see a way forward come one day to delhi, choose his/her "beloved" politician/beurocrat/scientist etc or agency and throw shoes/chappels whatever they have old used ones...

And this should be the political message...I think the day is not too far off. Keep writing ji...that day is not far off.

Sriram said...

Believe there is a provision to NOT vote for anyone - not sure how far it's true or 'exercisable'
Chk dis out -

Did you know that there is a system in our constitution, as per the 1969 act, in section “49-O” that a person can go to the polling booth, confirm his identity, get his finger marked and convey the presiding election officer that he doesn’t want to vote anyone!

Why should you go and say “I VOTE NOBODY”

Yes such a feature is available, but obviously leaders have never disclosed it. This is called “49-O”. Why should you go and say “I VOTE NOBODY”… because, in a ward, if a candidate wins, say by 123 votes, and that Particular ward has received “49-O” votes more than 123, then that polling will be cancelled and will have to be re-polled. Not only that, but the candidature of the contestants will be removed and they cannot contest the re-polling, since people had already expressed their decision on them. This would bring fear into parties and hence look for genuine candidates for their parties for election. This would change the way; of our whole political system… it is seemingly surprising why the election commission has not revealed such a feature to the public.

Rule 49-O is a rule in The Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961 of India, which governselections in the country. It describes the procedure to be followed when a valid voter decides not to cast his vote, and decides to record this fact. The apparent purpose of this section is to prevent the election fraud or the misuse of votes.

Text of Rule 49-O
49-O. Elector deciding not to vote.-If an elector, after his electoral roll number has been duly entered in the register of voters in Form-17A and has put his signature or thumb impression thereon as required under sub-rule (1) of rule 49L, decided not to record his vote, a remark to this effect shall be made against the said entry in Form 17A by the presiding officer and the signature or thumb impression of the elector shall be obtained against such remark.

Present Implications of Rule 49-O
Since the ballot paper / Electronic voting machine (EVM) contains only the list of candidates, a voter cannot record his vote under Section 49-O directly. He must inform the presiding officer at the election booth. This violates the secrecy of the ballot. However, with paper ballot a different method is used to “waste” ones vote, which is stamping on multiple candidates. In fact this was the standard method of giving null votes without violating secrecy before the advent of the EVM.

At present, in an election, a winner will be declared irrespective of the number of ‘non-votes’. However, a note of every ‘non-vote’ will be made with the Election Officer, and the total number of non-voters will, presumably, be available under the Right to Information Act.

Source: Election Commission of India press note on 49-O.

Debate: 49-O debate on NDTV.com
(I got this from a blog)

Anonymous said...

Article 49-O of the Indian Constitution actually suggests "that a person can go to the polling booth, confirm his identity, get his finger marked and convey the presiding election officer that he doesn't want to vote anyone".

But not surprisingly the public is unaware of such a thing.

Anonymous said...

posted on Punjabeco-crisis

Dear Dr Sharma

I fully agree with your view point.
Let us start a movement to have an option "None of above" in the ballot paper (machine).
I am 100% with you on this aspect.

Best regards

Dr Balbir Singh Joia
Senior Entomologist (retired)
Punjab Agricultural University
Ludhiana 141 004, India
Tel 01628 261601 M 94646 84527

Anonymous said...

Ok , so I decided.
My next qwestion would be if 14 loritabs, and booze would work?