AN OPEN LETTER TO THE WRITERS OF ELECTION MANIFESTOS
(This was written a couple of weeks ago, as the Karnataka manifestos were being written. Given that we are nowadays always preparing for an election, I think it is still relevant so I am posting it here.)
Since 2014 it seems we are hurtling from one election campaign, and the surge in the production of election manifestos has created proportionate debris of broken promises in our political landscape. Brutal news of sexual violence, distress suicides and disasters punctuate the calendar but we remain preoccupied with elections. While political parties make a hundred clichéd promises, what are people worrying about? What do they want? I have compiled a list which I trust will be useful.
Violence is on everyone’s mind, given recent headlines. But people are not just thinking about sexual assault and child rape, they are also expressing concern over domestic violence, sexual harassment in public spaces including stalking and workplace sexual violence. Even marital rape, which the government considers integral to Indian culture, is discussed. There is concern about how deeply ingrained habits of violence have become and also concern about whether the police and judiciary are performing their duties adequately. Not just feminists, but everyone understands that the government of the day has an important hand in creating impunity for gender-based violence. The political class responds with protectionism (how to keep ‘our’ women safe, and politicians make statements that only explain why we have a problem); the promise of more money on schemes that have not been thought through (look at the Nirbhaya Fund) or the threat of severe punishment, regardless of the long-standing argument that it is not severity but certainty that is a deterrent. Appearing to act is what seems to matter.
Violence expresses discrimination and that voters are able to make the link is evident from the parodies of the ‘Beti Bachao’ scheme that have appeared after the Kathua and Unnao cases. Discrimination is pervasive, sidelining or excluding people on the basis of caste, community and gender, among other criteria.
Indian voters have always been able to tell when you court a community for their votes, though they might play along. The more important questions today have to do with the endless list of everyday challenges they face: water, power, pollution (Bengaluru lakes are a horrifying visual illustration), and also the consequences of a shoddy education, that leaves people with great hope but little useful competence. Manifestos promise numbers (so many schools or technical training centres) but people understand that it is the quality of what is delivered that will help them get ahead.
Livelihoods are a critical concern for Indians, unrelated to official job figures. The government’s development vision has threatened traditional livelihoods for countless Indians. Compulsory land acquisition for industrial plants; resource extraction such as mining projects; or pollutants or industrial refuse destroying marine life have made survival a challenge for those who have hitherto been able to sustain themselves and their families. In some places, where women played vital roles in their sector (the processing of fish or cash crops, or marketing), new livelihood projects do not take this into account and end up side-lining them.
The alienationofland is a survival and identity issue. For communities that live by the land, the land represents wealth and security that are always greater than the rupee-value compensation on offer. Decisions to acquire land must be taken in consultation and concert with those settled in an area, negotiating not just price but the project itself. Research tells us that those who are displaced once, even with a monetary settlement, end up being displaced over and over again, and they slip further into poverty with each displacement. With displacement, come a host of other challenges, including trafficking and sexual exploitation. As we settle into an era of permanent election campaigning, the people of India need to see that you are aware of this. Development cannot be the source of poverty and misery; if it is, it is obviously not development at all.
There is also disquiet among those who are working in the new India’s new factories—the old-style ones that produce goods and the new-style ones that produce services. We are making deals with investors that trade off not just people’s land and traditional livelihood but also workers’rights. The right to unionise, negotiate better work conditions and bargain for better wages is violated in most of the new industrial and export zones. While some of the new companies have offered young Indians a quick professional start and good wages, these come with challenges: infrastructure follows the companies so sometimes access roads are unlit and unsafe; odd hours do not come with safe commutes; the many security restrictions and work regulations create a stifling atmosphere for those at the bottom of the pyramid; and unionisation—or any political activity—is not encouraged. In the meanwhile, the old companies are still lagging behind in the old ways—wage discrimination, inadequate wages, work conditions including infrastructure like toilets and safety, for instance.
Climatechange and unsustainable practices are creating a new generation of challenges. So far, we have heard very few politicians take cognizance of these. Water shortages are immediate. We proactively ruin the environment and public health in the name of development. Drought has led to greater farm debt and farmer suicide, but the clamour is for a larger share of existing resources. We do not see election manifestos or speeches that reflect on a review of how we use or reuse water. Climate change is real—and with rising temperatures and uncertain monsoons we are living with it—but few politicians speak about the search for alternative energies or finding more sustainable practices. Those who do are seen as fringe voices or spoilers of the bonanza we are told is on its way.
Furthermore, we hear very little in election manifestos on creating resilience. This is an area in which the social sector has done pioneering work that government can help scale across the country. We still hear politicians speak about disasters as punishment, even at a time when we recognise that vulnerability causes disasters, and not nature itself. What will your government do to reduce vulnerability—better development choices, for one—and create resilience—access to information technologies, for instance? We want to hear election manifestos reflect this changed thinking in the practitioner community. In fact, we want those who draft the manifestos to take this opportunity to reach out to civil society and learn.
The ideological journeys of our economic and social policies are excluding more people everyday and shrinking our democratic space. In search of a theoretical maximum good, we lose sight both of the immediate harm done to communities and resources, as well as the fact that development is supposed to take place within an environment where human rights and democratic principles are adhered to. In this endless election season, we would like to hear a reaffirmation of this idea. We want to hear politicians tell us how committed they are to participatory planning and to co-written development visions that also promote our rights and participation. Nobody wants a divisive politics, because nobody’s life is improved by it. We want politicians to step into the breach of our disagreements and facilitate reconciliations. We want them to be strong and idealistic enough to view our differences as aberrations and take the risk of resolving conflict rather than benefiting from it in the short and intermediate term.
Enough already, of the formulaic election manifesto which starts with a vacuous and inexact vision statement and ends with a laundry list (so many scholarships, so many bicycles, so many new women constables)! We want you to use these once-irrelevant documents to tell us how you see the world, identify its most pressing problems of the day and how you are going to fix them. Take strong and clear positions on the issues that matter to us, and let us decide which of them matter most to us when we vote. We, the voters of India, are smart enough to understand bet-hedging and just-in-case thinking. Tell us the truth, and we may even reward you for it.
What we would like to see in an election manifesto
A glimpse into your worldview and values
·Express zero tolerance for misogyny. Do not continue to reward those who speak in terms that put down women and minorities; if they have no respect for people, they cannot serve. Rape culture begins with misogynistic speech and behaviour; we want to see you nip it in the bud;
·Do not dismiss gender and sexual violence charges as minor offences. There should be a political price to pay, both rape accused and to those who go out on rallies in their support;
·Reject interpersonal violence as a political language. Violence, including sexual violence, that targets members of one community with a view to intimidating or eliminating them is genocidal behaviour on a pilot scale. Tell us where you stand;
·Take a clear position on caste discrimination. Dalit politics is not just about the solidification of a vote-bank but the continuing reality of our everyday attitudes towards other citizens.
·Take a strong position against caste atrocities and communal violence;
·Acknowledge the reality of climate change and its consequences for our survival.
Your approach to development
·Do you commit to consultative, consensual, participatory and transparent decision-making, especially on land and resource issues?
·Do you see a relationship between human rights and development and how does this affect the choices you will make?
·How will you improve the life-chances of the very marginal? Tell us what you will do that will substantively alter the quality of their education and remove the ceiling to their aspirations.
·What are your plans for reducing the vulnerability of communities to climate change and other disasters and how are you going to help communities achieve resilience?
·Let us see what you have thought about sustainable technologies in which you will invest, how you will improve agricultural and industrial practices and how you will approach conservation.
Your election manifesto is a medium to communicate with us on matters we care about; use it meaningfully.
I am a political scientist by training. My research interests lie at the intersection of gender, security and governance issues. I like to write and this blog represents to me an independent middle ground between academic or consultancy writing and the more personal writing that I sometimes do.