An epitaph to the literate, educated middle-class

KPN photo

One of the big cliches about Indian elections is that “the educated middle-class” voters do not come out to vote because they do not find the kind of candidate they can relate with.

And that the moment they do, our world will be transformed.

That cliche was kinda essentially reduced to bull shit on toast last week when just 44.73% of voters came to the booths in “highly literate” Bangalore South where besides the outgoing BJP MP, three people of pedigree—a young US-returned Congress candidate with a software spouse; a respected college professor standing on the JDS ticket; and an Air Force man who set up India’s first low-cost airline standing as an independent—were on offer.

But this middle-class apathy is neither new nor surprising.

BHAMY V. SHENOY with IIT on his resume, a long career in the oil industry in the United States, an established record as a consumer activist in Mysore, has twice stood for the Karnataka assembly elections: once in 1989 and then in 1994. The first time he won a grand total of 550 votes; the second time he was four times as lucky, getting 2,260 votes.

In 1994, when the average turnout in the State was 65%, Shenoy’s “literate” constituency recorded 52%.

Here’s his story which gives us more than an inkling of what is in store for Captain G.R. Gopinath, Mallika Sarabhai, Meerah Sanyal and other do-gooders of their ilk at the hands of “the educated middle-class” in the 15th general elections.

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By BHAMY V. SHENOY

My own experience of contesting the election from the Chamaraja constituency of Mysore City as an independent candidate and losing the election by a big margin proves my hypothesis that Indian voters are not interested in elections, do not care who wins and often do not even know whom they are voting for.

One retired Karnataka Administrative Service (KAS) official who wanted to vote for me changed his mind at the last minute to vote for a candidate because, on his way to the polling booth, that candidates people gave him his voting registration number!

In my constituency, there were eight major slum areas and the votes there were controlled by petty feudal lords, usually small time politicians.

They are not influenced by what the policy of liberalisation is doing to the economy, whether poor are getting kerosene regularly, whether the condition of roads is good or in what way the reservation policy will affect our educational institutions in the long run.

They are swayed by how much money they will get or what position they can secure after the election.

I was hopeful that their votes would be more than neutralized by the active participation of literate and educated voters in my constituency. But my hopes were belied.

I had contested in the assembly election in 1989 also from the same constituency and secured just 550 votes. This time I could get 2,260 votes. The surprising thing was that even many of my supporters were shocked by my defeat.

When I contested the election in 1989, I was not known in the city. I had returned from the US in 1987 where I had stayed for more than 22 years.

But in 1994, the situation was entirely different. With the help of many leading intellectuals, scientists, professionals, retired army officials and bureaucrats, I had taken interest in solving every significant problem faced by the citizens in Mysore.

During the campaign I did not want to match my political opponents in terms of spending money. While they spent any where from Rs 7 lakh to Rs 20 lakh (despite the much publicized observance of the model code of conduct of T.N. Seshan), I spent less than Rs. 14,000.

But with the help of friends, we were able to visit more than 30,000 houses and talk to more than 70,000 people. We did not just ask them for votes. We spent some time in each house and discussed the problems faced by them.

Thousands of voters had promised to vote in my favour after understanding why I was contesting. If just 50% had kept their promise, I would have easily won.

As a part of the campaign, I had published a booklet Decline and Fall of Mysore: Who is Responsible? I was able to sell more than 3,500 copies of that booklet. Some who read that booklet voluntarily came forward to help me in the campaign. The message in that booklet was clear. Unless literate and educated people take interest in politics, we can not improve living conditions in city.

Eighty percent of the voters in my constituency were literate and between 40 per cent and 50 per cent were readers of newspapers and reasonably well informed. My strategy was to concentrate on this literate body and to take my message to them.

I also spent a lot of my time with members of Rotary, Lions and Round Table clubs, industrialists, employees of leading industries, shopkeepers, educationists, medical and engineering students among others. This is after all the segment of the society which is capable of understanding how professional politicians are duping them and this is also the segment of the society whom,  purportedly, I could easily communicate with and convince of the need to bring about a revolution in our political system.

I was obviously wrong in my assumption.

A shopkeeper was frank enough to admit that if we really root our corruption he would not be able to earn his living!

For the sake of argument and to show others how moral we are, many of us may talk against the present corrupt system. But many of our traders and industrialists have learnt the art of managing the system and continuing to make money. They may even agitate for unification of taxes and show anger against the political system which is bringing all kinds of irrational rules and regulations. But in the final say, they prefer a system where they can bribe and manage rather than one where the rule of law prevails.

When the average percentage of voting in the whole of Karnataka was around 65%, my constituency which has among the highest percentage of literate people managed to post the lowest percentage of voting: 52 per cent!

In other words, our literate class which should be able to vote taking into consideration the merits of the candidates did not even bother to perform their duty and betrayed their city. There was greater participation of voters from slum areas rather than from better neighborhoods.

I was hoping that since the literate class is fully familiar with the lack of a well-defined election  agenda on the part of political parties and lack of determination to implement what little they have, not only they would canvass for me but would publicly come forward and endorse my candidacy.

But for a handful of well known Mysoreans others were hesitant to come forward to support me publicly. Most of the leading intellectuals had privately assured me that I could depend upon their support and votes. Ironically most of those who had publicly supported me could not finally vote for me because their names were missing from the voters list. Is this just accidental or is there a sinister design?

I also observed another interesting phenomenon during my campaign. While all the people living in slum areas were registered, many people especially (the principal of a medical college and a retired judge to name just two) who had transferable jobs often are not registered.

The attitude expressed by some sympathisers of the Bharatiya Janata Party clearly shows how immature we are as far as democracy is considered.

Some of them did not even know who the BJP candidate was but that did not bother them. A few even told me that they would vote for the BJP even if the candidate was worthless. Some of them assured me the vote after hearing my name. They had assumed that I was the BJP candidate.

Even many educated voters did not know what was expected of their legislators. One doctor assured me of her vote if I could get two dustbins by the side of her house. Another housewife wanted my assistance that once elected I should come and clear the garbage in front of her house. Many were going to vote for certain candidates because they had received certain favours like getting admission for their children, or sites.

Very few were aware that a legislator should try to bring about a systemic change by enacting the right kind of legislation so that all are benefited, so that the rights of minorities are protected, so that society as a whole prospers.

With one exception, all newspapers completely ignored my candidacy. Even when I was prepared to pay, one newspaper was hesitant to accept my advertisement and I had to make many calls before I could buy space. No newspaper bothered to find out and publish what the stands of different candidates on various important issues were.

When a candidate-public meet was held for the first time and many professional politicians could not answer questions from the public properly, only one newspaper bothered to cover this important experiment.

The most significant revelation newspapers could make was that voters would vote along caste lines!. If that was indeed the case, being the only prominent Brahmin candidate from my constituency, where there are more than 20000, Brahmins, I should have got many more votes.

A longer version of this article was published in The Sunday Observer, Bombay, dated January 15-21, 1995.

Photograph: Karnataka Photo News; author pic courtesy itbhuglobal.org

Also read: 61% vs 51%: So much noise and so little impact?