Ajit Chaudhuri – March 2013
Introduction: Many of you will have come across the actress and director Revathy! I first did in a Tamil film screened at the students’ common room in the late 1980s. ‘Cute!’ I remember thinking (the sort of looks that get you the hero’s sister’s role in Hindi films, who smiles sweetly, mutters ‘Bhaiya’ a few times, and ensures that he gets hot food and avoids parental censure when he returns from his nocturnal wanderings – you know what I mean). The next time was when she was an election candidate in Chennai in the 1990s and attributed her subsequent loss to the political apathy of the city’s middle class voters. “These people”, she said, “will happily queue up for hours outside the US Embassy for a visa, but will not spend five minutes to vote.” This line stuck in my head, and I had the great pleasure of reminding her of it when I next came across her, this time in person in the mid-2000s (still cute, may I add).
I completely agree with her thinking! You may not get the government you want, but you always get the government you deserve! If you do not vote, you have no right to crib about the criminals, malcontents and dilettantes that represent you! If you expect good public policy, the country needs to have better people in parliament, and that in turn requires the DHLs (i.e. the decent, honest and law-abiding segments of the population) to vote! It is almost anti-national to be uninvolved! I beamed with pride when I got my election I-card, made the wonderful discovery that it took 20 minutes door-to-door (including walking 10 minutes to and from the polling booth) to exercise my franchise, and I now sanctimoniously flash my black-dotted finger at cocktail parties post elections. I am a responsible citizen! I belong! I have a right to crib and moan!
It was therefore a pleasure to come across a well laid out argument against these sentiments in a 1953 paper entitled ‘In Defence of Apathy: Some Doubts on the Duty to Vote’ by a British academic named WH Morris Jones . This note looks to outline the argument and examine its validity in the imperfect and illiberal parliamentary democracy that India is today.
Questioning the Duty to Vote
The thinking on the duty to vote has a background. First, it brings up memories of the struggle for the right to vote, a time of public debate and agitation and of piecemeal conquest (wherein one section of the community at a time won this right – a struggle that was brilliantly depicted in the recent film ‘Lincoln’), whose gains needed to be secured by demonstrating that this right was needed and valued. The failure to exercise this right is seen as a betrayal of the pioneers who fought for it for one’s own section of the community. Second, it is influenced by the political doctrine of the left, reformers and radicals who want change and see politics as the way to bring this about, who are impatient with the sceptical and the indifferent – ‘it is difficult for one who has seen the light not to despise those content with darkness’. They see ‘political consciousness’, ‘political education’ and a disposition to be ‘politically active’ as important qualities, within which a duty to vote is a basic ingredient. And third, it is influenced by the political doctrine of the right, who believe that the non-voter is usually moderately conservative and therefore that the lack of a duty to vote offers a premium to socialists at the cost of other parties.
Membership of a polity involves rights and duties. Some rights are universal, including (in democracies) the right to vote. Others are not, and are conferred upon some and denied to others depending upon individual or common needs. Similarly, some duties are universal (such as, to obey the law) and others not. Most countries’ laws do not recognize the duty to vote. Yet, there is widespread belief in a moral obligation to exercise the right to vote. To what extent does a right to vote constitute a duty to exercise the right? This is addressed by examining the grounds upon which the right is based.
The first relates to the individual level – the right to vote is necessary to express one’s political personality (therefore a universal right). However, the energies and inclinations that constitute a political personality are present in individuals in varying degrees; in some, they are missing, and others express them in non-political associations, such as religion, the club, and the family. ‘A taste for politics may not be as well defined as a ear for music, but in both cases their absence is sometimes best simply accepted.’ For such people, not exercising their right to vote is not a frustration of personal development.
The second relates to the section of the community an individual falls within – the wishes and needs of one section cannot be adequately understood or expressed by another, and public policy is better when it is subjected to pressure from all those it affects. The possession of the right to vote for its members may also be a defence against competitor groups. However, a vote is only one weapon among the many available to groups to exert power, and regarding society as a field of continuous struggle is possibly as wide off the mark as considering it a scene of perpetual peace. It is difficult to see group loyalty as so continuously important that it gives rise to a duty to vote.
The third relates to the body politic as a whole – the political environment is unbalanced when sections of the community are excluded from political influence. The state imposes duties upon its citizens (paying taxes, obeying laws), and justice demands that citizens should have corresponding rights to influence these duties, rights that are enabled through the right to vote. It is this that constitutes the most serious argument for a duty to vote – parliamentary democracy depends upon consent and participation, and the more of these the better. Withholding one’s vote makes the system poorer, and the non-voter should, at the least, have adequate reason for not voting.
But this is not the only way of looking at democracy! It is, above all, a way of dealing with business and going about things, distinguished by its love of trial and willingness to admit error – requiring expressions of interest and discussion of viewpoints so that they can be exchanged and reconciled. Participation and consent are useful, but only as aids to complete and adequate debate. All that is imperative for the health of parliamentary democracy is that the right to vote be exercised to the extent necessary to ensure that the play of ideas and clash of interests can take place. Heavy polls may be irrelevant to the healthy conduct of political business.
There is the special case of a widespread failure to use the right to vote resulting in threats to democracy, leading to the argument that the right to vote is secure only if the duty to vote is recognized. The apathy of the electorate is blamed for giving dictators and tyrants their opportunity – ‘people get the politicians they deserve, bad leaders indicate a lack of standards among those choosing them, and this lack is rooted in disinterest’ goes the argument. But, there are other explanations for dictators – inadequate or mistaken notions of democracy among the non-apathetic, impatient selfishness of group interests, and incompetence of those in power. ‘When parliamentary democracy fails, it is more likely because of a failure of vision, or will, or moral courage among those whose business is politics than the consequence of inadequate interest in politics on the part of the electorate.’
The Benefits of Apathy: Scepticism about the duty to vote is not the only ground for a defence of apathy – the apathetic have political virtues as well. Their presence constitutes a sign of maturity in a democracy – that it recognizes that there are and always will be people for whom political activity is a waste of time and talent. They are also beneficial to the tone of political life – a reminder of the proper limitations of politics, and an effective counter-weight to fanatics who constitute the real danger to democracy. A state that has ‘cured’ apathy is a state in which people believe in the efficiency of political solutions to problems of ordinary lives – an erroneous belief. ‘The best parts of the best people are those the parliament has nothing to do with, politics is the second best business of second best men, and a government of the people by the people only implies control of an indeterminate part of human affairs by an indeterminate part of the human race.’
My Own Conclusions: It is a pleasure to read arguments in favour of qualities that are not often promoted (sloth, indifference, half-heartedness, etc.), and this one presents an excellent counter to conventional wisdom on this topic. The key point, that the apathetic are an important component of democratic society and contribute towards a better political environment, is well taken. Debatable, for me, is the ability of the argument to transfer completely to India – our enhanced role of the state, our identity-based politics, and the difference in our thinking on the nature of rights and duties, preclude this. I, for one, will continue to exercise my right to vote! I will also, however, (post reading this paper) not look smug and sanctimonious in the presence of those who don’t. After all, ‘they also serve who stand and stare.’