Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Indian apathy towards politics, a historical perspective

In a democracy every individual has been vested with power to elect a government. The very act of casting ones ballot makes him a partner in governanceThis is the power that democracy bestows on an individual but this message seems to be lost on the Indian voter.

Data source Indian Election Commission

If we look the voter turn out for the last four Lok Sabha elections, you will notice that Indian voter turn out has hovered around the 58% mark and this has been the trend since the birth of the republic, give or take a few percentage points. 63.75% voter turn out the highest ever so far was recorded in 1957 followed by the second highest of 63.53% in 1984. No points for guessing why? 

Data source:
If we compare that to some other democracies that follow the Parliamentary system of governance for example the UK, Sweden or Belgium we will see that we have a poor voter turnout. Even Bangladesh, a relatively new country with dodgy record has a better voter turn out compared to India.  

Data source:
Which brings us to the question, why the India voter turn a blind eye, cloaks himself in indifference and tolerates shameless horse trading, nepotism, blatant corruption among other 'goings on' in the power corridors of the elected representatives. The common refrain is 'politicians are just like that' or ' does it bother me' or 'who cares what they do, as long as...' or ' does it matter if I vote or not, they all are crooks, I rather enjoy the holiday or remain at work' such apathy has no parallel in world civilisation. Bloody revolutions have been launched for lesser acts of betrayal by their rulers. Many have tried to analyse this detachment and much has been written about this passiveness towards politics, in some cases people have called the Indian citizen unpatriotic, selfish, parochial, cowards even. But no one has really found an answer to this behaviour. Its important for a Indian to understand what shapes our behaviour and makes us different.

For the better part of Indian civilisation, India has been predominantly a Hindu civilisation, a Vedic civilisation to be precise. Vedic dharma has laid the foundations of our culture, society nay the very civilisation itself. From Vedic dharma has risen Hindu religion, philosophy, customs, traditions, attitudes and behavioral patterns, which is now part of our very DNA. Some of this Vedic DNA may have got diluted in the last millennia but most of it is retained in one form or the other and some still may be dormant, ready to awaken.

From this Vedic root has emerged our political and military ethos. The Kshatriya varna was instituted with the primary duty of maintaining law and order within and arresting invasion from without and thus the Khastriya dharma was born.
"To serve the country by participating in war became the svadharma of this warrior community. This had a salutary effect on the administration of the land. The cut and dry distinction of the civil population from the military and equally clear distinction between the civil and military function of the State helped to a large extent not only the progress of civil administration but also the moral and material welfare of the land." Ramchandra Dikshitar, War in ancient India
This confinement of militarism to just a section of the society namely the Kshatriyas prevented the militant attitude spreading across the population and insulated the normal citizens from the vicissitude of politics and even war. The life of the other three varna's namely the Brahman, Vaishya and the Shudra continued uninterrupted while the kings changed or fell to the sword all around them.
'May we revel in a hundred winters rich in heroes', Atharva Veda
The people looked at the Kshatriya as the defender of the country and did not grudge them their high status and privileges. May be this is why Indians are not appalled by the corruption of our politicians, we feel its within their right to loot the country for the services rendered. Even the politicians may be feeling like wise for doing so.

Besides insulating the society at large from politics, the Vedas also codified conduct of war under dharmayudha. All's fair in love and war or 'Total war' was not a phrase known to ancient Indians. This had a profound effect on how civilian population behaved to changes in power. 
War did not eat into the vitals of the society as it has done in recent times. Society pursued the arts of peace, trade and commerce unaffected by the war. Ramchandra Dikshitar, War in ancient India
Conquering kings never disturbed the civilian life and in most cases reinstated the defeated king on payment of indemnities and tribute. The Greek ambassador Megasthenes (4th century BC) noticed a peculiar trait of Indian warfare.
"Whereas among other nations it is usual, in the contests of war, to ravage the soil and thus to reduce it to an uncultivated waste, among the Indians, on the contrary, by whom husbandmen are regarded as a class that is sacred and inviolable, the tillers of the soil, even when battle is raging in their neighborhood, are undisturbed by any sense of danger, for the combatants on either side in waging the conflict make carnage of each other, but allow those engaged in husbandry to remain quite unmolested. Besides, they never ravage an enemy's land with fire, nor cut down its trees." Megasthenes, Indika
In fact using fire in general and flaming arrows in particular was forbidden.
"The Hindu laws of war are very chivalrous and humane, and prohibit the slaying of the unarmed, of women, of the old, and of the conquered." Professor H. H. Wilson
"At the very time when a battle was going on, the neighboring cultivators might be seen quietly pursuing their work perhaps ploughing, gathering crops, pruning the trees, or reaping the harvest." 7th century AD Chinese pilgrim to Nalanda University, Hiuen Tsiang
With so much security and assurance of safety its not very difficult to infer from the above that civilian society stayed aloof, untouched by politics and war, which may also explain the Indian indifference to politics today. This attitude remained unchanged even during the Muslim invasion and occupation followed by the British occupation. People went about their lives nary a thought about who governed them, some even collaborated with the occupiers. Thus the common refrain "who cares what they do as long as..." or does it matter if I vote or not, they all are crooks, I rather enjoy the holiday or remain at work' has its roots in an age old attitude ingrained in our psyche.

I believe with education, break down in varna rigidity and over all increase in awareness and nationalism, Indian's will be able to break down this age old isolationist fence they have built around them and participate more purposefully and responsibly in the governance of India.

War in ancient India by Ramchandra Dikshitar
Indika by Megasthenes
Atharva Veda
Shanti Parva, Mahabharat
Travels of Hiuen Tsiang in India

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