“The Americans are free,” Alexis de Tocqueville said rather patronizingly, “once in five years.” One wonders what he would have said of the exercise of freedom here in India, especially after watching the entire electoral process from beginning to end. He concedes that, even if it is once in five years, the Americans are free. In other words, he doesn’t really find fault with the electoral system he saw in America. We who have to be a part of our own electoral process in the 21st century, after our political parties and various governments have brought about several, shall we say, refinements to it, may be excused if we have some doubts about the nature of our freedom, some confusion about what it really is.
The system, let us be clear, is a well-thought-out and strong system, presided over by the Election Commission, which has, over the years, made it clear that it devotes all its energies to ensuring that the elections are free and fair. That is the system; that is the process. But there are very few among us who would consider that that is all there is to it. We know there’s a whole lot more, and the freedom that one doubts or is confused about is caught up with that part, not with the actual conduct of the elections.
We’re beginning to see the parties get down to business. There are the meetings, organized by “cadre” — that is, by aggressive bands of toughs who appear to have no other work except intimidating people into attending meetings, thrusting flags and banners into their hands and chivvying them along to the spot where the leader will address them. These toughs may wear red headbands or carry trishuls or portraits of Sonia Gandhi — it doesn’t really matter. They all belong to the same breed. Their job is to get “the masses” — that’s people like you and me and all the ordinary people you see going about their business in the streets or in their little establishments, or in the fields if they’re in the country — to come to the meetings addressed by the leaders. Whether these people actually listen to the leaders is a different matter, and the cadre don’t really care if they do or don’t. All they want is that the masses are there.
Now this is only a part of the business the political parties have. There’s a great deal more: posters and slogans daubed on walls and anywhere else that’s prominent; the use of very loud speakers to din slogans into the heads of the masses; and for the middle class, television messages and programmes, all done in as slick and polished a style as possible. Some celebrities grin as they extol the virtues of the government in power; other celebrities wax passionately eloquent about the shortcomings of the party or parties in office, demanding the resignation of some, the arrest of some others.
There are vans which move about with video cassettes showing on fairly big screens with deafening sound accompanying whatever images are on the screen. Patriotic songs, songs of sacrifice, songs about the virtues of freedom fill the air. Huge pictures of leaders — smiling, or passionately fierce — appear on hoardings wherever one looks. And, not to be outdone, the media carry little else other than stories about all the aspirants for political power.
All of this is, unsurprisingly, not very different from advertising campaigns selling cosmetics or a cold drink. The only difference is that the advertising campaigns go on and on, and these have to stop after a while. But the target, the minds — or what’s left of them — of the masses, is the same. You cannot escape the toothpaste ad or the face of a political leader; you simply have to listen to a slogan about the virtues of a party or about a cold drink. Open a newspaper and they’ll both jump out at you; look up from your book and you’re transfixed by grinning faces or shiny sleek images of whatever product is being thrust at you. “Vote for”, “Buy”, “Trust” and “Enjoy” are words that echo in your head till you can’t really tell one from the other. It’s a jumble, in the end — Vote for Coke, Buy Vajpayee. And it isn’t always funny; it can be grim, this brainwashing. Remember that brave young army officer who had stormed a Pakistani position in Kargil saying “Yeh Dil Maange More” — just before he was killed'
The fact is we aren’t allowed freedom of choice; not because of any harsh fascist prohibition, but simply because of the huge waves of slogans and speeches and posters and jingles that bludgeon us into a state of numbness, making it impossible to exercise a rational choice. And, more often than not, that choice itself doesn’t exist. We’re asked to choose between two undesirable candidates merely because they belong to two different parties headed by charismatic figures we may or may not approve of.
In all this, what do we point to as freedom' Freedom of choice, as part of one’s participation in the process of governance, about which we’re told by clamouring voices of political aspirants of all shapes, sizes, beliefs, attitudes, mental abilities and virtuous or criminal characters' If we survive these assaults on our sensibilities, then we’re up against the cadre, who make it clear that scores will be settled one way or the other.
Nevertheless, the process has to be gone through. Given all these aspects, we stumble along the dreadfully pitted road to democracy, and each election is, in some way, a return to that road and a few halting steps along it. That, quite honestly, is where commitment comes in. One could say one’s choice is not really choice, because we’ve been turned into zombies by the cacophony of the electoral process; but in the end it is some kind of choice. We may drink Coke or Pepsi because we’re the victims of one ad campaign that’s more successful that the other. But even so, there is still somewhere in the ringing in one’s ears a little bit of judgment left. It may not be much, but it’s there. It’s that which is what, collectively, we can call, however hesitantly, the democratic will.
Look at it in the most negative terms; at least the exercise of that bit of judgment lets us go back to leading our normal, mundane lives, as it also elevates to office some of those who were part of the hullabaloo we would have survived after the election results are known. They will then begin to do, or resume, what they are addicted to — exercise power, distribute patronage. And yet, while they do that, they will know, even those who are considered to belong to families destined to rule India, that sooner or later they have to come back to the masses and the exercise of that little, residual judgment that every individual comprising the masses has. And just as they cannot wish that away, to the masses these men and women in power will never really be anything more than supplicants and carpetbaggers — eager to get what they can, their character remaining just that, in spite of the red lights flashing on their cars, the wailing sirens and the police escorts.
Perhaps that’s what freedom really means — recognizing everyone, no matter how exalted, for what he or she really is.