By the end of next week, Tripura would have sealed its electoral fate for the next five years, and Nagaland and Meghalaya would be in their final weeks of campaigning. But I am not going to focus much on the electoral battles today. I have spoken about them in my previous columns. This week, I only wish to address one section: the voters.
The Indian electoral festival, also known as elections, is as diverse as our country, yet, somehow, some stereotypes persist here too. For example, ever since I remember reading expert opinions and columns, I remember being told that in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, caste plays the biggest role in elections. Now, do I disagree with that statement? No, but I disagree with the idea that caste matters only in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. It matters in every state where there is caste. That is how caste works.
Of course, we have our own stereotypes too. For example, you will often see commentators, some locals and many from the outside, regularly interchange tribal identity with tribal voting. Confused? Let me explain.
We are often told that just as birds of the same feather flock together, tribals from one community vote en masse for a candidate. Now, even a cursory look at the list of candidates (try zeroing down on the sheer number of Sangmas contesting across Garo Hills in Meghalaya) will show that such assumptions lack any substantial ground knowledge and favour generalisations over doing actual ground work.
Then, there is the spectre of violence and again, while it is a problem in our region (remember Manipur last year?) we are hardly the only ones who engage in political violence. Even states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which are in a different league compared to the northeast states in nearly every metric, have extremely violent political pasts. So yes, we are not peaceful, but alas we are not alone. And may I add, barring one or two instances, Nagaland, Meghalaya and even Tripura have mostly remained completely peaceful in the run-up to elections.
But I concede on one point, and again, this might be an unpopular opinion. But we have become near-slaves to cash doled out just before voting. I repeat, this might be an unpopular opinion but I doubt those fighting for free and fair elections will disagree with me. I particularly liked an image shared by the Chief Electoral Officer in Meghalaya. The image showed that if a voter received Rs 50,000, their value was the same as a cow. If they received Rs 20,000, their value was the same as a pig reared for meat.
Here is the thing: I may very well be accused of taking the moral high ground because I may not need the money given by a leader for voting. People in villages living a hand-to-mouth existence can hardly be blamed for taking money. But at the same time, if one accepts money, one also accepts what comes with it. They accept that now if their elected representatives do not perform as expected, it is because they had already ‘paid’ their fine for their underperformance.
And this is where I find the government, the Election Commission, and the various administrative bodies guilty of spending more time talking about free and fair elections than actually ensuring the same.
Help sustain honest journalism.
Take a recent report. Two days ago, we saw a story which said the enforcement agencies seized over Rs 31 crore in Nagaland since the announcement of the dates for state assembly elections till February 7. There are similar stories from Meghalaya, and of course, they will continue for the time being. Now, this is all fine, but who was punished? What party was he/she working for? Which candidates’ people were involved? Last year, we had asked similar questions during the Manipur elections, and the answer was always the same: we are investigating, and we will punish those found guilty.
And as always, no one ever gets punished. Catching the money does little more than give the Election Commission a small story in each newspaper, and that story is useful only until the next press release. But what is the use if leaders and parties involved go unpunished? If a voter can be made to feel guilty for their choice of taking the money, can the election commission do the same for leaders? It is all well and good to ask for free and fair elections. I particularly feel bad for residents of Kiruphema Basa and Thizama under the Kohima district and Nihokhu under the Niuland district in Nagaland, who have taken the resolve to ensure free elections. The Goliath of corruption and money will, most likely, triumph over such Davids trying to ensure an election does what it is supposed to do: give marginalised people a voice and empower them to help build a better future. Sadly, while we will see many more stories on how much cash has been seized, I will not be holding my breath for an investigation that unveils which parties are behind it. Because few things bring political parties across the spectrum like ensuring that people remain at their mercy.
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