Voting digits

A collectivity is not just a sum of its parts. It is, in fact, a summation — its own, complete, being. When we emerge from the voting booth having pressed that button, heard that beep, with the black ink blob still fresh on our fingers, are we thinking about the part or the whole? What we are doing is, really, to hope for a cumulative outcome without paying heed to the individual. Hence, in that compressed moment, behind that cardboard partition, our eyes look and look only for a certain ‘whole’ — the party and, specifically, for the party’s symbol. It is all about the branding symbol — hand, lotus, sickle, two leaves, the rising sun, broom, elephant and many more.

If the candidate is to have a realistic chance to be elected to Parliament he or she needs to be a party candidate. But, curiously, the Constitution of India is only interested in the elected members of Parliament and not elected parties; in fact, until the anti-defection amendment, it did not even mention the term ‘political party’. We have of course forgotten that significant fact. Since we have turned Parliament into a house of parties, the individual member has become almost irrelevant. He is merely a number adding up to a bigger number that is hopefully more than 272.

When we are not even aware of the party candidate, imagine the plight of the independent candidate! The fact that a party symbol makes a permanent imprint on the mind of the voter makes it impossible for an independent to create even the tiniest impact on the voter. An independent has to choose a new symbol that he needs to popularise within a few weeks. In the history of Indian electoral politics, few independent candidates have won elections even when they had the financial resources and personal stature to contest. This is the reason we find ‘good’ individuals joining parties with which they have little if any ideological commonality. Does this mean that you and I cannot hope to contest any election and win unless we become part of a branded herd? Yes, it does.

Let me return to the election symbol. The idea of the symbol for every party or candidate is a brilliant use of the possibilities of symbolism. Right from the first general elections, aware of the high level of illiteracy in India, the election commission used the ‘visual symbol’ to make the Indian voter — literate or illiterate — equal. Equality among voters was thus ensured, but what about candidates? A symbol is an image, within which is contained not just the party’s identity but also its history and its ideology. But unlike other symbols, here it becomes indelibly attached to the party, thereby creating a permanent association in the voter’s mental eye.

The Election Commission has a deck of symbols. These include, well-established formal party symbols of the mainstream parties. The candidate from a new party or an independent has to choose from the available symbols on offer. One of the biggest challenges for the independent candidate is the ‘symbolised’ strength of the mainstream party candidate. For us, voters, the symbol infers an organisation, a political party, and an independent without such a known symbol will not be taken seriously.

It is time the Election Commission re-considers the entire scene of election symbols. It should go into the question whether symbols by being permanently identified with certain parties do not create a visual monopoly and therefore a political privilege. Can symbols not be designed and distributed afresh once in a decade, parties being obliged to adopt a new symbol once in so-many elections? We need not fear that this would cause confusion in the voter’s mind. Private corporations have changed their emblems, to which the consumer has adjusted effortlessly. The Indian voter has a mature and subtle understanding of politics and we can be rest assured that he will work through this. We also need to consider if Independent candidates can be given a favourable handicap with their symbols having a longer tenure to establish their symbol. Every candidate should have equal chance to capture the voter’s imagination.

Will too many independents create an unstable government? While the problem of too many independents is real, we should keep in mind that in the first independent government of India, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru co-opted individuals with various political leanings and from the larger society into the cabinet. But in today’s political environment, is this possible? We can’t be sure, but if we give every independent candidate an equal chance and force every party to focus on individual candidates rather than rely on a symbolic image, then the quality of the people we vote into Parliament might just improve. For this, the party symbol and its impact have to be assessed and reviewed. Every time we talk about being pragmatic or practical we must remember that the birth of these ‘realistic’ positions was actually in the ideal. Why not begin from there again?

Originally written for The Hindu

The club mentality

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. I first came across that name through the Amar Chitra Katha. The ‘ACK’ pictorial book was then an integral part of a young mind’s reading material. From his animated story, one incident has stayed with me. Invited for a formal dinner at a friend’s residence, Vidyasagar is denied entry by the security guard who thinks he is an uninvited guest since he is not appropriately dressed. A little while later Vidyasagar returns attired in a suit and is promptly welcomed. When dinner is served, he directs the food not to his mouth but to the clothes he is wearing. The bewildered host asks him if there is a problem, to which he replies that he is feeding his clothes, as it was his clothes that were invited and not he.

Thanks to an advertisement for a concert by the BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra, all of a sudden from the deep crevasses of my cerebellum this story popped up. The advertisement read ‘Mandatory dress code — black tie or Indian formals’. A dress code infers order, conformism, sophistication, class, recognition and exclusion. The word ‘exclude’ is derived from the Latin claudere, which means ‘to shut’. Anyone not dressed as directed can be shut out is what the ad says. Do people dress indecently when there is no dress code? Does attire define the quality of the audience? No! Yet no one thinks there is a problem. After all this was a private event and the organisers can be said to have the right to frame rules of entry. It was not enough that I bought a ticket; I had to conform to a code, a code that branded me as eligible, a code that made me worthy of entry and a code that defined my social strata. And in all this we forgot that music was the love of the evening. But this is not the only place of exclusion. Private Clubs all over the country demand a dress code. These are private conglomerates of money, influence, supremacy and privilege and all these adjectives are sewn into the dress code. The membership list will include social commentators, intellectuals, socialists, media barons, politicians; all of who demand equality and access for everyone outside the club gates. The dress code is not just about what members perceive as decent as often explained; it is about exclusion of a certain kind of people who are not seen as good enough, not ‘our kind’.

If we were to extend this question further to the idea of conformism in attire the discussion becomes complex. What about uniform in the army, police, medical services or schools? Does it instill pride, selflessness and commitment? But the uniform does something else; it makes the soldier or policeman act, reflexively, on command. It creates the illusion that the uniform is infallible and unquestionable. How much of the policeman’s authority is worn in his clothes? His tone, his body language is all about power and control and not about the people he serves. The uniform creates a thoughtless state of mind derived from the command structure, held up by attire and badges. Before I get accused of being anti-army, let me say that I am only questioning the conformist condition hidden within the uniform. It is the same psychology that is applied to the uniform in schools. A uniform on the battlefield is one thing but officers are seen so often travelling on trains, on buses, off-duty yet uniformed. It is one thing to stand out; another to stand apart. ‘But’, I hear the counter, ‘a uniform gives us a sense of belonging, unity, camaraderie; it is a symbol of who we are and what we do’. Does it really? Who we are and what we do are closely related to how we think. Does a uniform allow us to think? Or does it cap thought? Unfortunately it is that very same intellectual abdication that Mr. Rajmohan Gandhi revealed when he wore the AAP cap with the picture of Arvind Kejriwal on it. The doctor’s white coat with the serpentine stethoscope coiled around her neck, at once generates respect. True respect is for the healing the doctor represents and healing is not just a medical act. There is only one functional need for a uniform and that is recognition; yet the dangers of the code far exceed this one redeemable aspect. Forced conformism in any form is a trap; insiders celebrate it and outsiders are supposed to look up to it in some kind of stupefaction. This is true of the black-tie event, the collared shirts in the clubs, the police and school uniforms. All of them breed differentiation, exclusivity, superiority, fear and control. Is this how we want to live? Let us not make the mistake of equating uniformity with equality. Uniformity is a condition that lacks equality. It kills the individual, and disrespects the smaller collectives. It is established and enforced by the majority and hence there is nothing equal about it. This is exactly why the demand for a uniform civil code in our country is not about ‘equals’, it is about unequals.

Originally written for The Hindu