City City Bang Bang, Columns

When in doubt, vote against

There are many voters who have already decided who they are going to vote for in the forthcoming elections. For those who have made up their minds to vote for the BJP, the reasons might be many. A strong belief in the leadership of Narendra Modi, a feeling that Hindus need to come together or risk marginalisation, the sense that Mr Modi is the person most likely to bring about transformational change in the economy, the feeling that even if his first term might not have delivered fully, he is still the best option among the choices available, to name but a few possible reasons. Similarly, there are those on the other side that are very clear that they will vote for the opposition, and their reasons too are well defined. Apart from those that will vote for the party that they always have, the other principal reasons span a fear that this government is destroying the essential fabric of the country, anxiety that the institutions of the nation will not survive another term, a sense of disappointment at the failed promises of this government, or a sense of despair arising out of issues like unemployment, agricultural distress or the after-effects of demonetisation or GST.

But there are the others who are not entirely sure which way to vote. Gurcharan Das, in a piece in this newspaper last week, articulated the dilemma of those caught between a feeling of disappointment with this government and an absence of a real alternative. Voting against an incumbent necessarily means voting for the other side (unless one avails of the NOTA option), and that is the problem for many. The choice boils down to choosing the lesser of two evils. The trouble with this way of framing the choice is that it is dissatisfying, in that one seems to be opting for a compromise, either way. This is particularly so given that almost all agree that these are highly consequential elections, and making the right choice is of paramount importance.

Perhaps a minor shift in perspective might help give those undecided greater clarity and a more concrete sense of purpose. Instead of thinking about weakly endorsing the lesser evil, what if they were voting resolutely against the option that represented a greater danger to the country? Instead of asking who might be marginally better, why not ask who could be infinitely worse? This means voting against an option rather than for a preferred choice. In an ideal world, this may not be a great option, for the purpose of a government is not merely to not be something, but to actively stand for and help bring about positive change. A vote is usually an affirmative choice, for one is, after all, electing those that will help determine the collective destiny of a people. But in case such a possibility is not being foreseen by those on the fence, the option is to figure out what they do not want, rather than what they do.

There comes a time when a negative vote becomes the need of the hour. To do justice to this approach, instead of chalking up the pros and the cons of each option, describe both options by assuming the very worst of each. What if all one’s fears about each option came true? And then ask – what do we dread more? What must we avoid at all costs? Which option will lead to a decline that is potentially both irreparable and irreversible? What will hurt the country most in the long run?

Depending on the perspective of the voter, this worst-case frame could take the vote to either side. One could choose not to vote for a party that has ruled India for several decades and has over time become a fiefdom of one single family. One could take a stand against a motley group of opportunists that have cobbled together a coalition just to gain power. Forcefully block the aspirations those that have in the past run corrupt, inefficient, status-quoist governments and have pandered to the interests of select constituencies.

On the other hand, one could decide that no matter what the quality of the alternative, one would use one’s vote to stand against those that use religion to divide the country and create an atmosphere of hate.  One could take the view that a government that stifles dissent and destroys institutions is too dangerous to be voted for. One could vote to stand against those who make grand promises and fudge data when those are not fulfilled.

Anger is often a more clarifying emotion than hope. The power of the negative assertion is that it often protects that we cherish the most. The proximate reasons for voting for a particular party can sometimes overwhelm the longer-term considerations. But we vote not just for our immediate well-being but to preserve something that we deem valuable about the nation. Depending on how one sees it, the choices could be framed in several ways. Anarchy or Autocracy? Corruption or Hate? Instability or Institutional collapse? If the choices were described in such starkly negative terms, what is it that one is truly offended by? Where will one draw the line?

In many ways, doubt is an essential feature of democracy, for it is at the heart of the very idea of choice. If everyone had fixed political alignments, then elections would become nothing but a foregone conclusion. Not knowing which way to go validates the idea that there is a possibility of going either way, depending on a party’s performance or its platform. But when such a view is unable to guide decision-making, then it becomes necessary to go back to more fundamental questions. Voting becomes about choosing not the leaders that one wants, but about who one really is and what values one stands for. When in doubt, perhaps it is worthwhile focusing on whom to keep out rather than on whom to vote in.

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