This is the draft I wrote for an EPW editorial published in the of 25 April – 2 May, 2009 edition. There are significant differences between this draft and the final edit.
Maoist attacks on the people’s right to vote is similar to the fascists’ attacks on democracy
Elections are a good time to review the effectiveness and success of electoral democracy. While the tenacity of democratic politics and the success of its electoral system are generally celebrated in the present context, there is much to criticise the working of Indian democracy. Six decades and fifteen elections later, not only has democratic politics not been able to address satisfactorily the issues of poverty, underdevelopment and discrimination, there also remain problems in the working of democracy itself. Money and muscle power remain important obstacles to the fuller participation by the poor and politically weak. Communal and caste mobilisations are used cynically by parties and candidates to gain votes. Rigging still remains a bitter reality despite all the measures taken by the Election Commission. Lastly, it can also be argued that many of the promises made by the dominant political parties at the time of elections remain dead letters once power has been achieved.
Given these facts, it is but inevitable that questions would be raised about the relevance and efficacy of electoral politics in India. Such critiques of India’s democratic system have regularly emerged from groups wanting secession, from social movements, from academic analysts and most persistently, from the Maoist party(ies). The latter have variously described the electoral system in India as a “farce”, “sham” and “illusion”. They have argued that no real change in poverty, underdevelopment and discrimination can be effected through participation in the electoral process and have claimed that this merely hoodwinks the masses into a false belief in change. They claim that class interests are so deeply entrenched that electoral competition would make no difference to the lives of the people. The Maoists therefore state that people should not participate in this sham and save themselves from this illusion. They claim that their “revolutionary people’s committees” and “revolutionary peasant committees”, which they have formed in the tribal areas of Chattisgarh, are “the highest and truly democratic systems” in India today. It would be accurate to state that some of the dissatisfaction with the misrule and corruption of the Indian political system finds expression in Maoist politics.
There can be various arguments for and against these claims of the Maoists. Whether one agrees with their analysis and programme of action, they have every democratic right to call for a boycott of elections and campaign widely for this agenda too. But they go beyond a mere political campaign. In each election, the Maoists have cynically used violence against the most undefended and weak links in the electoral system – the polling officer going to a desolate polling station, the constable guarding a polling booth, roads and bridges bringing people from far off areas to the polling booths – to deprive people of their right to vote. In the first phase of the present elections, Maoists attacked the polling process at 15 places, killing 18 people, including 5 election staff. There were similar attacks in the second round of polling too.
Parallel to the increase in the Maoist attacks on the electoral process has been the increase in the popular participation in elections. In the four decades since the first Maoist call for electoral boycott, democratic politics and electoral processes have entrenched themselves deeply within Indian society. What is particularly significant, as has emerged from a host of studies, is that it is the poor and vulnerable who are most enthusiastic about exercising their franchise. Income, education, social hierarchy and marginalisation all seem inversely related to electoral participation and democratic commitment. Exercising one’s franchise and participation in the electoral process have become one of the most important weapons of the poor and deprived in their struggles for a better life. The people of India have used elections and electoral processes to weaken power relations, attack privilege and soften the blows of exploitation and oppression. In fact, there is now strong and growing evidence that voters tend to have a mind of their own and are less likely to get swayed by either inducements or threats, whether from the landlords, contractors or Maoists. Even in those areas of Chattisgarh, where the Maoists boast that they have brought “true democracy”, between half to two-thirds of the electorate ignored the Maoist call for boycott and voted on 16 April.
Since their calls for boycott of elections have been repeatedly ignored by the people, the Maoists try to stop popular participation by spreading terror among the voters. This stubborn defiance of the actually expressed will of the people betrays a deep contempt for the very people, in whose name the Maoists claim to shed all this blood. It is nothing but a symptom of fascism when a political force, for the sake of upholding the ideological purity in its practice, deliberately terrorises the mass of the people to act against their free will. Even if the Maoist assertion of electoral democracy being a “sham” is correct, who gave them the right to forcibly stop the poor and downtrodden from exercising their franchise.
Such attacks on the electoral system are totally unacceptable and criminal. Whatever justification there may be for recourse to violence to oppose exploitation and oppression, there can be none for spreading terror among the common people to stop them from voting. This dependence on violence and terror to stop electoral participation is the clearest proof that the Maoist’s campaign against elections has been a spectacular failure.
The people of India have for long endured the violence and terror of the entrenched class and caste interests who have tried to deny them their vote and steal their mandate. Despite all the obstacles, people have defended democracy, fought to extend its boundaries and repeatedly given their vote of confidence to the electoral system. For the poor in India today, who find a weapon against power and privilege in the vote, the Maoists are turning out to be as much of a hindrance to the exercise of their democratic rights as have been, traditionally, the landlords, contractors, local upper caste militias, fascist and communal parties, and corrupt officialdom.
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