WHAT IS WRONG IN VOTERS SELLING THEIR MANDATE?

By Yengkhom Jilangamba
This article was published by the Sangai Express (http://thesangaiexpress.com) on 19 Mar 2012 at http://thesangaiexpress.com/sangai-express-news.php?newsid=13952

Yet again another election has been conducted in Manipur with a massive recorded participation by the voters. We saw moments of tension, marked by violence leading to loss of lives and property. We also saw the usual tactics of manipulation leading to claims and counterclaims and repolling in some areas.

There has been an interesting exchange of opinions on the issue. The question that I would like to pose, here, is what is wrong in voters selling their right to freely exercise their vote? I do not intend to comment at the moment on how free this freedom is. Therefore, let us set that aside and begin from the premise that there is some level of free choice for the voter to select the candidate of one’s choice.

The use of money and muscle power as one of the forms of manipulating voters in elections seems to be an integral part of electoral democracy. But in specific contexts like Manipur, it is compounded and further complicated by various other factors. For example, the current violent-ridden condition, the presence of unaccountable armed groups and militant political groups intervening in the processes of electioneering.
 A factor that determines the fate of candidates in the elections in Manipur has been how much money one is willing to spend for an election. Whether or not one is qualified, competent, or has social capital does account for only one of the factors. The other crucial component is how much money the candidate is willing to spend on the potential voters.

In other words, it should be taken to be the kernel of truth that a huge sum of money is spent on elections. The manner and the nature in which that money is spent may be different. Sometimes, it could be in the form of campaigning, pamphleteering, holding meetings, etc. as platforms for announcing and making promises on various socio-economic issues; at other times, it could be carried out through privately-funded ‘developmental’ works, construction of community halls, mending of roads and canals, etc. In cases of booth capturing or influencing the election officials, one cannot but conclude that there must have been exchange of money. Still further, the money could be spent in buying off some prominent individuals who can influence a group of voters or directly given in cash to the potential voters and quite often the same voter may receive money from more than one candidate.

But it is with this last instance of transaction of cash for vote, which is a visible form of buying off that the question of public morality comes into play. Any responsible person can see that this is wrong and would point out that this is not the way democratic elections should be conducted. So, the question to be asked is – is selling of one’s vote through direct transaction of cash more repugnant and wrong than other less visible and hidden forms of subornment?

Quite often taking of money by the potential voter promising his/her franchise for that particular candidate is taken to be a sign of immaturity on the part of the voter in matters of rights which are a fundamental part of democracy. In other words, the voter has not yet reached the stage of atomised, individuated rational self – an integral element for liberal democracy. Given the wide prevalence of buying voters through cash, the observation can extend to encompass the whole society.

But to draw a conclusion from this (mal)practice of electioneering as a judgement on the level of consciousness of the people in so far as their democratic understanding is concerned smacks of elitism. It may be a case of reproducing a social hierarchy, which is by blaming the victim rather than challenging the systemic problem that has produced these practices. Is not this similar in nature to sexist men who blame a woman victim of rape responsible for the act through the justification that she invited the rapist by provoking? In another context, similarities can also be drawn with how the north-eastern people are blamed for not joining the mainstream. These attitudes reflect blindness to the hierarchical nature of the power relations between the two parties and, thus, help in reproducing the structure.

The intent here is not to justify bribery. Rather, I would like to argue that that selling off of one’s vote may be an effect rather than the cause of the problem.

Here, the pertinent and the important question to be posed is – why is it that people are taking bribes and not exercising their right to choose their candidate through secret ballots? The question of which form of bribery is worse is secondary. The issue about free choice is definitely dubious in this case given the limited options that a voter has.

In this regard, it may be pointed out that quite often we talk of people or voters as a unified common denominator. But if we try and segregate the voter into categories, it might bring up some interesting points. For instance, it can be safely assumed that those who accept money in lieu of vote are likely to be from a lower socio-economic background without getting or expecting any benefit from the electoral process. In contrast to this, those who have a sound economic background might have already been beneficiaries in the form of government jobs, contract work, governmental developmental schemes, etc. and they may be campaigning for one or the other candidate hoping that if that particular candidate wins, the chances of getting favour are higher. Since they have a direct stake, they have no reason why they should accept money for vote. In fact, these people are the funders, however big or small the amount may be, for particular candidates in any election.

Of course, reality is much more complex than this neat separation. We often hear, informally, of individuals who have benefitted from the elections by pocketing the money meant to be distributed in a particular locality. Similarly, there are also proxy candidates propped up by a more powerful candidate in order to cut into the main rival’s votes. One also hears of manipulation, intimidation, threat, social boycott, and many more corrupt ways in which the process of electioneering is conducted.

Therein lie the murky negotiations settled within closed doors, a very integral part of the electoral process. Why blame only the poor voter when the entire system is rotten and corrupt? To speak of practising good moral duties by the voters as a desirable goal is one thing but quite another to demonise them as inferior beings who cannot live up to exercise the responsible duties of being democratic citizens. However much we like to believe that it is the people who decide the elections, poor people definitely do not. To blame them for debasing democracy is to speak in the tongue of the mighty and the powerful.

Matamgi Manipur: In the first week of this month, Okram Ibobi was sworn in as the chief minister for the third time in a trot.

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