Yesterday, I exercised my right to vote for the first time ever! A full 8 years after I gained enfranchisement, I finally cast my first vote during the Tamil Nadu state elections. The experience proved to be quite revealing — here are my thoughts on the matter.
I. Seeking Objective Information
Knowing that I had a decision to make on who to hand my vote to, I set out to seek objective information on the candidates and their parties.
Websites: I figured that the best place to start would be the parties’ manifestos. To my pleasant surprise, each party had made its manifesto readily available on its website, and this information was centrally aggregated on the state election website.
Tamil: Unfortunately, that’s when I ran into my first roadblock — language. All of material was in Tamil, a language that I cannot read. Now, I realize that my lack of fluency in Tamil makes me the exception, but I doubt most of my middle-class Tamil-speaking peers would have had the patience to sift through tens of pages of documents in Tamil. I know I’d definitely be uncomfortable reading at length in Hindi, even though I have a good grasp of the language. I could have done nicely with an English translation. Perhaps this is a quirk of TN elections, a strategy even, what with the dominance of Dravidian parties. That said, some parties like the PMK did do a great job of reaching out in English, again perhaps a reflection of their target audience.
News Channels: Devoid of information from the horse’s mouth, I had to resort to media reports about the manifestos of each party. What this meant in turn was that I had to work to separate subjective biases and opinions from objective information. Before long, this led me to panels and opinion polls on each of these news channels, the sort of territory that I simply didn’t want to get into for fear of being overly swayed by selective inputs. Unfortunately, there was no way around this. Like it or not, the news controls what we think. Little surprise that each of the large parties has its own television news channel — these parties probably came to the same realization a long time back.
I suspect that if a national party is to break the stronghold of regional parties in Tamil Nadu, it probably has to grab mind share through its own media channel. Could it be that the next political wave will only occur when newer media forms disrupt television-centric news?
Independents: News channels report on issues at the state-level, not those at the local-level. Moreover, they are strongly driven by viewer demand. Perhaps the biggest victims of this are independents candidates. Try as I could, I wasn’t able to find any useful information on the independents standing for election in my constituency. Without a loudspeaker, these candidates were doomed to limited resources and door-to-door campaigning. And in a state with an average of 300,000 people per constituency, this is an incredibly uphill task. Little wonder that grass-roots movements rarely take hold, even when the passion and intent exists.
MLAs/Constituency vs Parties/State: Another pity was that I learned little about the actual person I was voting for and what he or she had in mind for my constituency. I couldn’t find this information online or in any of the pamphlets that had been distributed in my area. It’s unfortunate that all conversation centers around parties and their leaders. By the spirit of our constitution, voters ought to be impacted more by the identities of their MLAs than by the name of their Chief Minister.
The manifestos that I perused were by and large disappointing. The larger parties had little to choose between them, and on occasion it appeared as though they’d literally copied each other. Seems as though the major parties’ strategies are predicated strongly on ideological convergence and one-uppance in doling out freebies.
Freebies: I was disheartened by how explicit the intent to buy voters over with promises of freebies was. Free copies of the Gita/Quran/Bible, one sovereign of gold for every married woman, Rs. 1 lakh for temples of local deities … it can’t get more blatant than this. The role of government is to create sustainable ecosystems where voters can prosper, not to hand out IOUs for using public money to distribute gifts.
Policy: The two large parties, AIADMK and DMK, had little to say by way of policy. Assurance of “uninterrupted supply of power” or the creation of “one lakh new jobs each year” conveys little beyond the recognition that problems exist. The few forays into describing how such problems may be solved —“Lokayuktas to be established” and “lakes to be desilted”— left a lot to be said by way of timelines, costs and procedure. Hearteningly though, some of the smaller parties did good jobs of delving deep into their ideas and explaining how their goals might be achieved — it’s a pity that such thinking isn’t more common.
Chasing Fads: The two dominant themes this election were prohibition of alcohol and free internet. Nearly every party took a stance against alcohol, quite out of the blue considering that this was hardly a topic of debate during the last election. Similarly, every party seemed to have stumbled upon the idea that the internet carries great promise and concluded that every child should be given tablets and free internet access. Questions of whether one tablet per child is necessary, whether it makes more sense to enable teachers directly and whether good education content is even available in Tamil for children to access weren’t even broached.
III. Voting Logic & Social Behavior
In elections past, from my distant perch observing and commenting on the electoral process, I’ve wondered why electorates defy common sense so often. This time around, I had some insight — the decisions that voters make are hardly scientific and may not even reflect what the voters themselves want. Decisions are based on magnified assumptions that in turn rely on incomplete information. For instance, here are some of the questions I couldn’t wrap my head around:
- What guarantees do I have that the party I vote for will stick to its manifesto?
- Does the person I plan to vote for intend to be honest, or is he/she more interested in making money?
- Is the criminal case against a given candidate legitimate, or is it an opposition scheme to sabotage reputation?
- Should I vote for someone who clearly won’t win, just on principle? On the one hand, change will never take place if everyone was to succumb to group-think, but on the other, by voting for a candidate from a larger party, my individual vote is more likely to have an impact.
There was no way to answer these questions objectively, so I had little choice but to go with gut instinct.
IV. The Process
So, armed with incomplete information, I headed to my voting station at 6:30AM, a half hour before the gates opened. Despite the wait that ensued, the process of voting itself proved to be very pleasant. The logistics was very well executed — it was heartening to see dozens of electoral committee members carrying out their duties so assiduously. This was perhaps the most refined form of public machinery, serving the cause of democracy, that I have seen. The patriot in me swelled with pride!
The collective identity of the voters who queued with me was quite diverse — a gathering of the poor, members of the lower-middle class, senior citizens and middle-aged middle-class voters. Conspicuous through absence though was the middle-class youth — this could’ve been down to the time of day or, as I’m more inclined to think, because of apathy and inaccessibility. Empirically, I think most young people are too jaded by the jibes against the country’s politicians that is the staple of every Indian dinner table conversation; and where the fire hasn’t been extinguished, many simply haven’t managed to apply for their voter IDs in time.
Back to the process of voting though, here are a few quick tips for future voters:
- Get to your booth early, especially if isn’t raining — you’ll avoid the rush.
- Be sure to remember your candidate’s election symbol, since English translations aren’t provided.
- Get your indelible ink mark on your wrong hand (unless you enjoy the taste of ink-flavored Sambar).
- You might see multiple independents with the same name as candidates of prominent parties (Selvam P., Selvam T., Selvam R. and Selvam K. in my constituency); while doing your research, make sure you look up the right candidate.
All in all, the experience was invigorating — it made me feel both proud and empowered. It also got me dreaming about what elections might look like in the decades to come. Will objective information increasingly become more of a feature of the campaign process? Will the voting systems of tomorrow enable youngsters to vote from the convenience of their homes? Will politicians be forced to furnish more well thought-out manifestos to cater to this voter base? Will politicians be quantitatively held to task if they go against their campaign promises? Will all of these changes lead us towards a better future? I look forward to discovering, and perhaps shaping the answers to these questions with much optimism.
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