Not All Children are Equal to the Mother of Democracy!

Vote Election

I had a dream on the night before the parliamentary election in Gujarat, May 6, 2024. In the dream, I saw a Dalit woman being warmly welcomed into an affluent neighborhood. She then delivered her election speech in front of a large crowd gathered on the ground. These people were brought together by local youth, women, senior citizen groups, and unions of ordinary citizens, not by any political party. During her speech, the citizens respectfully asked her questions about her vision and plans to resolve local issues, and she answered with clarity in the local dialect. In the changed frame of the dream, people from all backgrounds – regardless of their social class, caste, or religion – were celebrating her victory. However, my deep sleep was interrupted by the morning Azan, and the dream remained incomplete.

Three days before the dream, on May 3rd, Chhedu Chamar ji faced dehumanizing rejection when he tried to file his nomination for a parliamentary seat in Uttar Pradesh. A circle officer denied him this right. This incident troubled me deeply, sparking thoughts about how those in power within the system discriminate against the poor and marginalized. When I discussed my feelings with my friends, they argued that ordinary citizens couldn’t win anyway, so there was no point in filing the nomination, and thus, no need for us to feel upset about it. While their point seemed reasonable, it made me reflect on how we’ve come to accept this unfairness as normal and how we’ve internalized the undemocratic notion as reality. These questions left me uneasy until election day when I found my answer.

Electoral Process at the Community Level

I woke up with that unfinished dream and got ready to go out and vote early in the morning. Generally, I would go directly to the polling booth to cast my vote. This time, however, I did not receive my voter slip and had to go to a party’s table to obtain it. Unlike the previous assembly election, where there were tables for two political parties, this election only had one party’s table. The table was set up on the sidewalk near our chawl (a neighborhood with about 2000 population) in the Danilimda assembly constituency. It was covered by a Mandap (15/10 sq. ft.) and had 20 chairs arranged around it. The table was there to help the 1425 voters in our area, providing them with slips containing details about their voting booth and guiding them to the polling station. 

After casting my vote, I returned to the table and sat there to observe the entire process. Since our neighborhood had a majority of poor Muslim residents, many voters who hadn’t received their slips from the Election Commission, didn’t know where their polling station was, or were unsure about the voting process (like women and first-time voters) came to the table for technical guidance and emotional support. An auto rickshaw was available to transport women and elderly voters to the polling station. Two dedicated workers were at the table assisting voters, and a polling agent was recruited at the booth by the party. In the early morning, voters came sporadically, but the number increased after 10 am, especially women. Voters arrived with various concerns and worries. Some came with voting slips from the Election Commission to check if they were correct (because they could not read them), and some came to obtain their voting slips printed by the party. Others were unsure about which identification proof to bring, while some simply wanted to double-check their booth’s name and address.

By 11 am, some community members who weren’t affiliated with any political party joined the workers under the Mandap. They were from the same community and came to support the dedicated workers and spend time with their fellow community members. Some stayed only briefly, while others spent the whole day there. They ensured tea, snacks, and other arrangements for those at the Mandap. Party workers and leaders kept visiting the table, took photos with people, and asked about the voter turnout. The dedicated workers kept providing them with a “satisfactory” number without even counting. All these activities made the election feel alive, at least around the table.

Expenses to manage a table 

About 6500 rupees were spent on this table, including 2000 rupees for the Mandap and chairs, 2000 rupees for the workers, 800 rupees for an auto-rickshaw, 1000 rupees for snacks (twice), and 700 rupees for the polling agent. However, we realized the workers spent an additional 1000 rupees on snacks for everyone present. The local community workers were displeased this time. They complained that the party hadn’t given them any money. Usually, around 10,000 rupees in cash per table is needed to run smoothly and cater to voters as planned. However, this time, a local councilor only sent 2000 rupees, so the workers lacked enthusiasm.

While listening to the dedicated worker discussing the budget problem, a local community member became upset and offered to arrange another auto-rickshaw. He explained that their concern wasn’t about any political party or candidate but about the women and elderly in their community facing extreme heat (around 42 degrees) while going to vote. Upon hearing about his concern, the local councilor arranged for an additional auto-rickshaw, increasing the expenses by 7200 rupees. Throughout the day, the efforts of these workers resulted in 828 votes (58.10%) out of 1425 votes, mostly for the same candidate. The workers believed the voting percentage could have been higher if the party had invested more in essential resources. They said no meetings or programs (sabhas) were held, and no IEC materials were provided to mobilize the workers and supporters before the election. Consequently, they didn’t engage with the community to create a “chunavi mahaul,” potentially leading to a relatively low voter turnout.

Other challenges

Managing booths in poor and marginalized communities is incredibly challenging. Those who praise a particular party’s booth management need to realize that this party’s voter base mainly consists of urban middle and upper-middle-class people who can vote independently without help. In contrast, the voter base of many secular parties comprises primarily poor, marginalized, and less educated citizens. This demographic requires more resources to mobilize and assist in the voting process. Even with significant resource investment, there’s no guarantee of securing votes. Emotional triggers are crucial in encouraging voters to come out in large numbers. Without such triggers, workers often struggle to perform effectively. This may lead parties to resort to emotional appeals based on religion or caste identities. Here, religious texts and the religious leaders become relevant.

In every election, local mafias get active, and dealing with these mafias or “Bahubalis” also requires money or muscle. Today, some party workers came to this table and told us that the local mafia had taken down their table to disrupt the voting process. When I asked if these mafias would target this table, too, the workers said that mafias typically focus on communities whose leaders are involved in illegal activities or benefit from them in some way. Unfortunately, due to the widespread informalities and inadequacies in our systems and institutions, many poor and marginalized people are forced to turn to mafias or Bahubalis to resolve their problems. These problems can include internal conflicts, court cases, harassment by police or local thugs, or dealing with high-interest loans. These obligations also force many citizens to remain silent on electoral manipulations by the mafias.

Besides the significant challenges of financial and muscle power, local power dynamics among party and community workers also play a significant role in booth-level management. Senior community workers excel in persuading community members to vote for a particular candidate by using their previous obligations within the community. While youth are better at mobilizing voters, they may lack the “obligations” to influence voting decisions. Thus, the nexus of money, muscles, and senior community (or party) leaders essentially gets hold of the electoral process at the community level.

Electoral Arithmetic at the Constituency Level

The Ahmedabad West Lok Sabha constituency had 1556 booths for over 16 lakh voters in the parliamentary elections. In the last election, the winner from BJP received 6,41,622 votes, while the runner-up from Congress got 3,20,076 votes. Apart from these two major party candidates, no candidate received more than 10,000 votes (with 14,580 votes going to NOTA). To secure over 6,00,000 votes, which is necessary to win, a candidate must obtain around 900 votes from at least 700 booths. This is a challenging task even for a political party with money, muscle, and teams of workers at the local level. Since efficiently managing a booth requires around 10,000 rupees (excluding human resources), a candidate may need a minimum of 70 lakh rupees to spend on booth management alone on election day, with no guarantee of winning or securing votes. Other expenses, such as campaigning, travel, meetings, and management (vahivat), can amount to crores more.

The Way Forward

The disgraceful treatment of Chheddu Chamar ji is indeed a stain on our democracy. However, we should also feel ashamed of the deeply feudal and classist nature of the electoral democracy. In our existing electoral system, it’s nearly impossible for an ordinary citizen from a poor or middle-class background to run for election independently with the hope of winning. Their only option is to join a political party, work for years, and hope for a party ticket. The system is essentially controlled by the nexus of corporations, political parties, mafias (bureaucrats-backed), and other social institutions. This tight grip on our democracy seems almost impossible to loosen. 

It is extremely difficult to suggest specific solutions to break this cycle. But before thinking about solutions, I believe we must strive for a truly just electoral system. We must aspire that even the most vulnerable citizens like Chheddu Chamar ji, who is independent of any party and lacks financial resources, can run powerful campaigns and win elections. We must not accept the normalization of the existing discriminative electoral system. Our collective desire for genuine democracy will indeed guide us toward more pragmatic solutions and tangible progress. I wish my interrupted dream of having independent community groups for youth, women, senior citizens, laborers, and workers, separate from political parties, would come true one day. I long for a true fraternity among us that could offer an alternative path.

May the mother of democracy treat all her children equally!

Dr. Ajazuddin Shaikh is a Research Associate at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad and a civil society activist. He works with the marginalized communities on the issues associated with substance use. 

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