Atanu Dey On India's Development

United Voters of India — Part 1

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Generally speaking, Indian democracy consistently fails to elect good political leaders at all levels of government. One of the many reasons for this could be that a certain segment of the voting population has been rendered powerless to affect the outcome of elections: it is the educated, middle and upper class, largely urban segment of the population. The illiterate and the poor constitute very large and powerful vote banks which are pandered to by unscrupulous political parties.

The reason for the powerlessness of educated urbanites is to some extent due to their being a minority. Around 30 percent the population is urban. Compounding this problem is the fact that individuals in this segment are a disheartened lot and have resigned themselves to the idea that there is little they can do to affect the outcome of elections. As a consequence, they don’t vote. My guess is that their share of votes cast perhaps much lower than 30 percent.

They are disenfranchised and to a large extent this disenfranchisement is caused by their perception that their vote cannot matter. The political parties know this and quite understandably neglect the interests of the urban middle-class educated voters.

It is likely that a significant percentage of this urban educated population are sensible people who have the capacity to understand what good policies are, know the importance of electing capable policymakers, and whose interests are aligned with the broader national interest of India.

It is possible that the 150 urban parliamentary constituencies of India have an aggregate of 20 million or so people who are sensible, educated, middle-class, urban voters. If they can be consolidated into a “vote bank” and persuaded to vote en bloc, it is possible that they can swing elections and be a force to contend with.

The idea is to create a constituency which we call the “United Voters of India.

Why

This has to be done because this appears to be one of the ways to fix the problem of bad policymakers and political leaders in India. By creating a constituency that demands good governance, the political parties and politicians will be forced to reform.

Other reforms in the way democracy is implemented in India can also make a difference. Consider these changes:

  1. Have a high barrier to entry on who can contest elections. Make the minimum requirement so stringent that only highly qualified people, who have demonstrated professional excellence, personal integrity, deep commitment to the overall development of India, etc., can be candidates for political posts.
  2. Have a high barrier to qualify as a voter. Make it a requirement that only those who are high-school graduates, have passed a test that tests for at least a basic understanding of the political process, the challenges the country faces, the need for public honesty and integrity, etc., can vote.
  3. Have high barriers both to who can be contest elections and who can vote. That is, implement points (1) and (2) above.

These reforms will strengthen democracy by shifting the power away from politicians and towards the people. Which is why the political parties will not allow these changes.

This leaves us with the option being discussed here: Empower the sensible educated middle-class urban voter by consolidating their votes into a voting block.

Core Principles

We articulate a set of principles that lie at the foundation of good governance. We call our set of core ideas “Pretty Good Principles.”

  • Equality and non-discrimination: All citizens have equal rights before the law. The government cannot discriminate for or against any citizen based on sex, religion, caste, creed, social status or any other characteristic.
  • Minimal government: Government must be restricted to matters related to judiciary, central monetary authority, law and order, external affairs, and defense.
  • Market economy: Government must not be in any business producing goods or services which the private sector can produce.
  • The Funding of Public Goods: Where justified, public goods may be subsidized through public funding. This includes some public utilities, education up to the high school level, and some science and technology related R&D.
  • Speedy Justice:

Modern Tools

We will create the United Voters of India constituency using modern communications and social networking tools.

Suitability for membership

A person who agrees that the Pretty Good Principles (PGP) are sensible is a suitable member of the UVI.

Furthermore, the person agrees to vote in all elections.

The person agrees to vote for the candidate that the group decides is most suitable for the job. This group decision is made at the relevant level of the group.

Membership is only through nomination. Only an existing member can nominate someone for membership. There will be one-time membership fee which will be used for maintaining the association, for informing the public about what UVI is doing, and for membership drives.

[Read part 2 of this post here. Also, see Rajesh Jain's posts on "Pretty Good Principles".]

  • Sridhar

    Atanu,

    Your approach seems to be a bottom-up correction. Another way to approach this problem is by trying to clog the incentives that today’s politicians enjoy and that motivate them into politics.

    The sole reason that 95% of our politicians contest elections for seats of power is to make money, amass wealth or to unfairly use power to advantage the enterprises that they are related to.

    Once this incentive ceases to exist, they would employ their vileness elsewhere and not prey on politics. They would stop fooling themselves and the public that they are into politics and government for the ‘welfare of masses’ and shut shop one of the biggest concentrations of hypocrisy in the world.

    Once this incentive ceases to exist, there will be room for the honest individuals to come into politics out of pure interest for non-pecuniary previleges that the power entails – such as making laws that they think are good or enhancing local governance or improving foreign policy etc.

    Once this incentive ceases to exist, the ‘large and powerful vote bank’ will no longer be an appendage and their vote bank might evolve into a question of pro-poor/welfare versus a free-market approach and result in balancing outcomes. Assuming that in this alternative politics, the contestants do not have the resources to lure the poor with goodies, liquour or money.

  • http://inthearmchair.wordpress.com Armchair Guy

    The “Pretty Good Principles” seem reasonable. But the “High Barrier” idea doesn’t.

    The High Barrier idea directly contradicts Pretty Good Principle 1. “High Barrier” is a fancy term for an artificial way to discriminate between people.

    Such ideas would work if Pretty Good Principle 4 (funding public goods – specifically, universal free education) is near-perfectly implemented. Otherwise it will just create a new caste system where those who are disenfranchised today will continue to be disenfranchised into the future and elites will corner all resources. We may wish to fondly believe that we can create High Barriers that keep out persecuting elites and only keep people who genuinely want to help everybody. But that’s anti-libertarian too. You can’t give one segment of the population absolute power over another segment and expect the elite segment to cede power voluntarily.

    The idea of restricting who can vote is quite dangerous and extremely destabilizing. Luckily it’s also inconceivable that any elected government could implement it.

  • Gyan

    Good intent, no content. None of the suggestion is democratic. It is likely that a significant percentage of this urban educated population is sensible, I really like to believe this but don’t see it. The issue with us is that we want others to behave, no body see inside and try to improve themselves. Good political leaders won’t come from outside, we have to make them from within ourselves, start with implanting values in our children.

  • Vivek

    Sir,

    I think there are a couple of other important reasons why urban educated middle class voters today do not tend to vote.

    Most of the time, these people are 1) on the move or 2) have settled in a new place due to their jobs. These people are most of the time unsure if they want to settle in their current city. They dont know when they might move. That being the case, they tend to ignore the call from local authority to register in electoral rolls. This is point number 1.

    Point number 2 – Current procedure to remove the name from a previous electoral roll and to add to a new electoral roll i.e., the current place of residence is either too complicated and in some cases vague. Some IT related jobs require people to move often. If some one moves to a new place and within 1 year, there are elections, he is obvious not eligible to vote at his place of residence. He has to go to the old place to confirm his registry in electoral rolls and subsequently go again at the time of elections to vote. All this means money to him/her and the worst of all it means a lot of time spent to just to vote, which ultimately takes some 2-3 hours on the voting day in some cases. The question on “does it really have any great dividends come back to him as “may be in long term, but right now its ok!” This creates laziness preventing him to vote. I have seen this happen with some of my colleagues. Lot of them are from Northern parts of the country and have their electoral listing in respective home-towns.

    However, on the idea to create UVI, I would like to ask “how would an organization or an individual generate this consciousness of a united voting force in a mass public, which is by and large in slumber?”

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  • Rakesh

    Shocking footage of assault on a man by locals and police in Bangaluru on July 30 2010:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkLizQd8k7o

    The story got no coverage at all.

  • AG

    Atanu

    All this sounds like rearranging chairs on the deck of the titanic.
    The problem is the fundamental concept of one-person one-vote — with 50% of people illiterate, there is no way the 30% “middle class” can ever swing it.

    The 50% will remain that way (Amethi like), and there’s nothing the 305 can do about it. Squat.

    India needs an all new form of governance.

  • Himanshu

    Hi Atanu,

    I have been following you and Rajesh on PGP and I have posted a comment on Rajesh’s blog which I would like share with you too. I want to share my view on the first PGP: Equality and non-discrimination: All citizens have equal rights and the government must treat all citizens equally.

    “India is my country and All Indians are my brothers and sister”, it’s the first line of pledge that we were taught in school. Never realized than that though we are the citizen of the same country we still not considered equal.

    I don’t have the intention to debate, but my concern is whether it is possible to create an environment where all Indians would be treated equal. There are 18 major languages spoken in India and over 1600 regional dialects with 800+ political parties including national, regional and local parties and our 25% population consist of SC/ST. The sessions at parliament many a times are suspended due to disputes over quotas. Government/ public properties are destroyed over regional disputes. I was surprised to learn that the term ‘Votebank’ was first used in India.

    Everyone in India wants quota for themselves maybe it be a Gujjar, a Jat or a tribal and to make life more worse our government approves all, then how can we consider ourselves equal.

    I agree that having equal rights seems to be easy but if we say that all citizens to be treated equally than I guess we are in a wrong country. To make government consider that all citizens should be treated equally means asking government to break its votebank. No party would ever do it.

    I have been reading your Blogs and I appreciate your writings and with a vast experience that you hold I look a as rookie in front of you, but I don’t agree with your view on Equality and non-discrimination. We won’t ever get a India free of quota system or regional disputes.

    The roots of discrimination has been laid strong.

    How do we see all Indians to be equal?

  • http://bloggerkartik.blogspot.com/ Kartik

    Very impractical to implement from the given situation. How do you suggest we get majority people to vote themselves out and make themselves powerless? Hence ideologically also (as some comments have pointed out earlier) it is baseless – you can ideate whatever you want, it has to have some value. Your idea is implementable only in an ideal world of charter cities.

    Your premise is that education and history of personal integrity/professional excellence are a perfect indicator of future performance. I would agree that they contribute, but certainly only in a small way. Otherwise Wall Street would have been heaven.

    What is a better indicator, in my opinion, is more intangible – sense of ‘not gaming the system’ or ‘not seeking undue economic rent’. The larger the contribution of intangibles, the higher the probability of a criteria-based formula being used wrongly for creating castes.

    In essence, I strongly disagree with the notion that years/degree education is a good indicator of civic sense.

  • TiredProf

    “I strongly disagree with the notion that years/degree education is a good indicator of civic sense.” — Either suggest some other feature (skin color, perhaps? kidding!) that correlates better with civic sense, or provide a proof that education does not.

    I agree with the pessimism in most of the comments. Two wrongs won’t make anything right. Our asset is our independent thinking, turning us into a vote bloc with defeat that basic good.

    As in many goods and services in India, we are supply-limited. I suspect, if good candidates were available, illiterate vote blocs would not do too badly at identifying them. However, through the quirk of fate, we are at a point now where hardly anyone who is not scum will aspire for public office. In other words, the only honest collective action of Atanu’s 30% would be to say “none of the above”. And that’s pretty much what is happening already, effectively.

    It seems fairly clear that evolutionary internal forces can never set this right. Most sensible people see Indian politics as getting progressively dirtier, with the current government easily the most corrupt in the short history of the republic.

  • Madhusudan

    Is it possible for the politicians to ‘divide and rule’ this constituency of ‘United voters of India’ ?

  • http://ananthsreflections.blogspot.com Ananth

    The pretty good principles are sensible and accepted. But the high barrier to entry doesn’t work in India. With so many illiterates, do you think it is possible to have a real representative government with only literates? Even though they don’t have any education, they do understand what is happening to them. Good leaders are required do overcome the problem of illiterate people not voting for good people. But the UVI is a good idea. I would be interested in joining too.

  • http://bloggerkartik.blogspot.com/ Kartik

    @TiredProf – I don’t think there is any good predictor for “civic sense”. Therefore it is best left without any descrimination (based on caste/colour, or based on education). Having such a (poor) predictor in place will only create bitter strifes through new castes – a worse option in my opinion.

    I may sound very cynical. But I think this piece inherently assumes that people are stupid and can’t figure out things for themselves, and hence the need of education. That assumption is valid only in a short term. That’s why my 2 paise of criticism.

  • Loknath

    I still don’t understand the “residence” conditions to vote for x y z person from a, b c party in p q r place. Given that at least 30% of Indian are state-less and identity less and don’t subscribe to and live up the idea of “native place”, the residence conditions it seems are crookedly engineered by congress and company over the years to deprive us people of the right to vote. I am dead sure that some dead man back in my constituency has my voter’s card, ration card and god knows may be loan from a cooperative bank. I for example have no place that I can actually call home. Having lived in 9 different states, I am a national citizen and only national concerns bother me, particularly of self respect and self worth. I would not much care if a particular policy is doing harm to me as long as it is in national interest and elevates the perception of India in the world. When I show my passport in a foreign country, people should look up to me as someone from the land of plenty, Land of power, Land of knowledge, Land of wisdom. Do Indians incl. even educated ones (who may not read such blogs) think this way. I seriously doubt. Since this is a wishful thinking in a land more diverse than whole of European nations put together, I propose a divided India, with each autonomous region being demographically, linguistically, historically and culturally homogeneous. The bastard nehru made us rant “anekta mein ekta”(Unity in Diversity) which is utter rubbish. Even more evolved countries in Europe fought tooth and nail to achieve ethnic cleansing and hence they are prosperous. Nothing short of a civil war instigated by these very same politicians followed by decimation of population 5 times over or a major epidemic like great plague of London or some more Tsunamis or some more earthquakes (that will eliminate the slums forever) can make our existence worthwhile. Probably some Lord Krishna will then take re-birth and theneforth the remaining survivors can lead a meaningful existence thus paving way for furute generations who will inherit the thought process to make it even better. We are right now a early 20th century Europe but with some random snippets of advanced civilazation like cars and nice building hither thither.

    INDIA JUST CANNOT AFFORD TO BE A UNITED NATION.

  • Loknath

    I still don’t understand the “residence” conditions to vote for x y z person from a, b c party in p q r place. Given that at least 30% of Indians are state-less and identity less and don’t subscribe to and live up to the idea of “native place”, the residence conditions it seems are crookedly engineered by congress and company over the years to deprive us people of the right to vote. I am dead sure that some dead man back in my constituency has my voter’s card, ration card and god knows may be loan from a cooperative bank. I for example have no place that I can actually call home. Having lived in 9 different states, I am a national citizen and only national concerns bother me, particularly of self respect and self worth. I would not much care if a particular policy is doing harm to me as long as it is in national interest and elevates the perception of India in the world. When I show my passport in a foreign country, people should look up to me as someone from the land of plenty, Land of power, Land of knowledge, Land of wisdom. Do Indians incl. even educated ones (who may not read such blogs) think this way. I seriously doubt. Since this is a wishful thinking in a land more diverse than whole of European nations put together, I propose a divided India, with each autonomous region being demographically, linguistically, historically and culturally homogeneous and MANAGABLE. They can when vote for someone who is of their tribe. The bastard nehru made us rant “anekta mein ekta”(Unity in Diversity) which is utter rubbish. Even more evolved countries in Europe fought tooth and nail to achieve ethnic cleansing and hence they are prosperous. Nothing short of a civil war instigated by these very same politicians followed by decimation of population 5 times over or a major epidemic like great plague of London or some more Tsunamis or some more earthquakes (that will eliminate the slums forever) can make our existence worthwhile. Probably some Lord Krishna will then take re-birth and theneforth the remaining survivors can lead a meaningful existence thus paving way for furute generations who will inherit the thought process to make it even better. We are right now a early 20th century Europe but with some random snippets of advanced civilazation like cars and nice building hither thither.

    INDIA JUST CANNOT AFFORD TO BE A UNITED NATION.

  • Rajesh

    I think many of the comments here on the High Barrier issue are a misunderstanding of what is mentioned in the blog. My understanding is that any one of the categories mentioned in Point 2 should be enough to meet the criteria. For example, an illiterate person with a good degree of political understanding and country’s challenges will automatically qualify for the high barrier. In the same way, a literate person with a dumb attitude towards these things and a who-cares attitude should be disqualified. The issue is how could this be implemented in the real world ?

    For those who say its discrimination, let it be. We are NOT discriminating them in normal day to day life. This is only going to be in the elections. Does that make them lesser people ? If that is the case, all the reservations are also reverse discrimination only. I have read somewhere that some European countries did not give the voting rights to women initially till they become fully aware of the political process and politically mature to elect purposely.

    In my Father’s village, many of the citizens blindly vote for Congress because Gandhi and Kamaraj were Congressmen. This is not just an isolated case. In TN elections, money is used shamelessly to buy votes. What is the solution to all these ?

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  • Anshuman Goenka

    Not sure whether I understand the intent (not feasibility) clearly of what you have said. You are suggesting that we roll back democracy, and limit it to “highly qualified people.” What does that mean – matriculates, graduates, PhDs? Who decides?

    Besides the ethical dilemma this poses, there is also the slight problem of historical precedent. Going by the case history of the scatter in the Indian legislative bodies, qualifications do not correlate highly to quality of contribution. Remember Natwar Singh? And contrast that with the homespun modesty of Bhairon Singh Shekhawat from the same state. I can think of similar pairs from almost every state of India (Digvijay Singh v Shivraj Chouhan in MP, Veerbhadra Singh v Shanta Prasad in HP — are two that first come to mind; in each case the former was better and formally educated but the latter had, in my view a greater and more positive impact).

    Unless of course, you are proposing that decisions about who should vote and who should be a candidate are also decided by the “group” at “suitable levels” – a suggestion that you make later when talking about limiting voting rights of your suggested political platform.

    A small bit of history: this is not the first time such a suggestion is made. Almost eighty years back, MA Jinnah suggested that the membership of the Congress be limited to matriculates – a view that was quickly and, in my view, wisely rejected by his highly qualified peer group at the helm of the Congress.

    The motley mess of Indian politics, with its warts (corrurption, chaos, nepotism and dynasty) is far superior in my view to what teh limitations on franchise that you propose; which I fervently hope will have only a limited, quasi-academic appeal beyond the readership of this blog!

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