There are those who will give an arm for your vote…

(This column was published in DNA edition dated May 13, 2009.)

Venky Vembu

So, one of the most soulless, dispirited general elections is about to end, and another motley, ‘same-old, same-old’ coalition – or a ‘same-same, but different’ grouping – is set to take office. In fact, given that these elections were so singularly lacking in the faintest frisson of excitement, many jaded middle-class types appear to have voted with their feet, preferring an extended weekend holiday over a sweaty trip to the neighbourhood voting booth. Particularly since, in their reckoning, it would have been a pretty pointless exercise anyway.

There has been some pretty impassioned defence of the jaded voters’ rationale for “not surrendering” to the “emotional blackmail” of voter mobilisation campaigners. Some of their arguments do have their merits, but in sum they amount to nothing more than ritual moaning and whining about the impossibility of beating the “political system” and the sheer powerlessness of “one vote”.

To all you ritual moaners and whiners, I have just two words to say: Mariatu Kamara. 

Kamara was 12 years old in 1999 and growing up in civil war-torn Sierra Leone when armed mercenaries pillaged her village. The rebels, many of whom were child-warriors, rounded up the villagers, including Kamara and her cousins, and cold-bloodedly chopped off their hands. Anyone who’s seen the film Blood Diamond will recall the chilling real-life scene where mercenaries ask villagers whether they prefer “short sleeves” or “long sleeves” – shorthand for amputation of the wrist or the whole arm. It’s been estimated that nearly 25,000 people, many of them children, had their limbs chopped off during the decade-long civil war.

The reason, as Kamara writes in her book The Bite of the Mango: if you don’t have your hands, you cannot ever vote or participate in the democratic process. And because that democratic process invalidated the rebels’ very existence, they resorted to ‘unilateral disarmament’ of the macabre kind. Such is the power of the vote and its potential capacity to induce change – and even benumbed, trigger-happy, machete-wielding child warriors in a banana republic know it.

True, the parallels with India don’t run too deep: India isn’t exactly a tinpot little African country, and, except in parts of our country where Maoists hold sway, you can vote freely or without risk of amputation – provided you find your name on the electoral rolls! Even so, it’s a shame that our latte-sipping elite make light of that hard-won voting right that countless people in repressed, authoritarian societies around the world would give an arm and a leg for – and, indeed, have.

Sure, our parliamentary democracy isn’t perfect – not by a long way – but it can never be perfected by voter apathy. In fact, the one chance we have of getting any closer to that state of perfection is by working even harder at it. Getting a working democracy on the road is in many ways like learning to drive a car: the first few you times you’re at the wheels, you feel intimidated, you get your foot off the clutch pedal too fast, the gear doesn’t seem to engage just right, and you probably even have a few minor bumps. But here’s the thing: you’re never going to learn to drive and hit the highway if you let your car rot in the garage.

Given the likely fractured nature of this election, it’s entirely possible that we could have another one along in a short while. So, quit moaning and whining about the powerlessness of your “one vote”. Instead, keep your car engine well-tuned, and the air pressure just right, and get ready to hit the road. Vote as if your life depended on it. In parts of the world, it really does: just remember Mariatu Kamara. And, believe me, you don’t ever want to go down that road.

Related reading
When chicken biryani spiced up an election

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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