Do we honestly attempt to choose the ‘Best One’ in a Democracy?

Polling Station

The elections are almost here. Irrespective of who one supports, everyone emphasizes on the fact that one must vote. Each vote counts. It is the time when citizens feel empowered. They believe they matter. Or, they are believed to do so. But what happens, when you no longer vote as an individual but as one amongst the many in the group. Each vote counts, but you don’t necessarily decide who you vote for. Someone else decides, molds, guides your decision. And this is based on strict lines (mostly, if not all the time) – Caste and Identity. Welcome to India.

Let’s start by asking a few basic questions. Who should hold power? A few or the many? And why? Is it because we don’t think it is a good idea to concentrate power in the hands of a few people (monarchy, dictatorship or oligarchy) or is it because we genuinely believe democracy is the solution. Personally, I think, it’s the idea of participation. Power in the hands of few, minus they being elected makes us questions their entitlement of the same. Plus, it also touches our own insecurity, that inherited power is not questionable, unlike designated power. In the utopian scenario, people understand what they want and elect people who they believe can fulfill their desired goals. What do you do if voters themselves perceive themselves as part of the group, neglecting the value of their ‘own individual vote’. In caste politics, individual votes don’t matter since they are visualized to be the part of the larger group, a group that is identified by its Last Name. This is one of the primary reasons, as to why many voters don’t bother or invest to understand issues and policies, minus the ‘what did it collectively offer to our group’ lens. But to say, they choose to be ignorant, biased and misinformed would also not be correct.

Politics in India feeds on ‘Identity’. Caste, in this case, constitutes both Varna (hierarchy) and Jati (endogamous groups). Broadly, Jati merges into the Varna system and eventually feeds how everyday politics functions. Many argue that illiteracy and lack of awareness is the main reason for the ‘herd voting culture’. Personally, I don’t think this is true. It is just the most obvious and assumed rational that makes people push for the idea that better the voter is educated, the better choice one would be able to make. But, for a moment, if we discuss all plausible arguments, what is this argument is true? Can there be potential alternatives to the above-stated problem? What if we change the rules of the game we have been playing past many decades? What if democracy, voting rights for all, is not the solution? Is it the right time to talk about Epistocracy?

Let’s imagine a situation wherein only the educated people (read basic knowledge and competency) are eligible to vote. All the existing institutions retain the same authority, liberty, and freedom as it does (in a democracy) and bestows the same amount of power to its elected representatives (as it does), the only difference being, only people with knowledge or competence get to vote. Many political theorists have had conversations around this, the idea being that it is not that the knowledgeable people deserve to rule but the fact that the ones who cast votes for ‘development’ shouldn’t fall prey to ‘identity politics’.

Elected representatives command high power and decide the future course of action for the country. The stakes are high, and it becomes incumbent on the voter’s part to choose

candidates who understand their problems, promise hopes not just for their ‘group’ but for everyone. So, a logical argument here is that if one is only concerned about the leader because there is a sense of belongingness, it is difficult for the voter to cast a vote without being influenced by it. Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise when all the major political parties, in the election season, want to coax the most popular ‘Local’ (read ‘Caste’ leaders) in their camp.

Studies reveal how voters would have voted for a different if they were better informed. This takes me to the next question. When we evaluate the performance of the Government’s tenure, do we ask ourselves the most fundamental question – Did the chosen elected representatives perform well? Is the picture gloomy because the voters failed to send the right candidates to the Parliament/State Assemblies?

Despite numerous studies indicating about the quality of MLA’s and MP’s in the country (courtesy criminal records, fake degrees, disclosed wealth), it makes it obvious that there can be only two reasons for this. First, either, the voter really doesn’t mind the background of the candidate as long as he is convinced with his promises. Secondly (and also the one that has higher probability) the voter just doesn’t know. It is sad but true. Most voters know nothing, some know a little and the others know a great deal.

Choosing the right candidate is not easy. ‘Right’ in this context means the one who is ideally assumed to be the best one (qualifications, character and manifesto promise). Epistocracy presents the idea where democracy’s downfall is reduced by limiting/reducing the power of the least-informed (let’s not call them ill-informed). What, however, is critical, are the modalities to institute Epistocracy. How do we pick these ’informed voters’? Would a basic political knowledge proficiency test suffice? Who designs and approves these eligibility criteria? I am wary of this falling in the bureaucrat’s kitty, see for example, how the BPL Cards are distributed in the country.

While exploring alternatives, one thing Epistocracy clearly misses is the idea that everyone is equal. This is the fundamental and the most inherent idea constituting Democracy. Informed or not, citizens are citizens. And the Right to Vote is not merely an ‘idea’ but evokes a feeling that ‘one matters’. Also, many would argue that only how ‘we’ vote matters, rather than how ‘I’ vote. Knowledge and Competence touted to be the prerequisite for Epistocracy is also a privilege. Both these constituents, historically, were dominated and controlled by Brahmins and other Upper Castes. So, this mere assumption that everyone (each voter) starts from the same starting point, itself, shows ignorance.

As we march into the election season, let us take a step back, evaluate the candidates in our respective constituencies and make an informed choice. Because, at the end of the day, each vote counts, and it matters.

Sanyukta Sharma
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Sanyukta works on Public Policy & Communication Strategy with Chief Minister's Office, Government of Haryana. Earlier she was a research associate with IIM Ahmedabad, Chief Minister's Good Governance Associate and Project Associate - Health and Social Policy, Harvard Project for Asian & International Relations.

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