So you cast your vote and exercised your duty to India in a most fundamental way. Or maybe you weren’t able to vote. Either way, there are now many other ways to be a good citizen, and this piece addresses three such urgent strategies.
But first, to those of you who were happy the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won, congratulations. I am guessing you had a good week. Unlike a number of your brethren across the political divide, who, in their disappointment, like to describe you all as anti-secular and illiberal. I know that makes you angry, and that there were other compelling reasons you voted for the prime minister to keep his title.
And to those of you who wanted the Congress-led coalition to win, don’t lose heart. I came across these words of hope on the day of the election result and they will lend you strength: “Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.”
These words are by the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit, and they can be found in her book Hope In The Dark. Solnit also says, “It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative.”
On counting day, I was with many fellow Indians at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, US, and I was envious of countries that allow their citizens to vote via postal ballot.
We had gathered to see the results pour in. The setting was surreal because we were in a bubble (business school) within a bubble (the campus) within a bubble (Silicon Valley).
Most were happy that Modi and the NDA won, but I still heard them express their desire for a more united, secular and developed India. They spoke about keeping the government accountable, and it dawned on me that we have let our political parties polarize us more than we realize. I felt in that moment that we ought to distance ourselves from party politics and focus on what we could do for India as citizens.
So what should we do?
There’s a long list of issues we could take on, but I believe we can boil down our duties as citizens to at least these three:
1. Make a new friend.
2. Keep your member of Parliament (MP) accountable.
3. Guard our institutions of democracy.
Now I have noticed something weird about my behaviour in the past 10 months at Stanford and its surrounding towns of Palo Alto and Menlo Park. I tend to smile a lot. A LOT. I smile at strangers on the sidewalk and in elevators, at people at stores, cafés and restaurants.
This is unlike my behaviour in India, where I go about freely with my natural “resting face”. Which could be a scowl for all I know.
Partly, the reason for this is that there is a small-town vibe here and everybody else smiles a lot too. But there’s something deeper at play. I smile because I don’t want to come off as threatening or “not belonging”.
Here, I am aware all the time that I am a brown-skinned man. And since I prefer these days to go about without shaving or grooming any facial hair (an extreme overreaction to my news-anchoring years when I put on make-up every day, no doubt), I worry even more that people will think I am a criminal. This, I realized, is the burden of being a minority. For someone who hasn’t always been part of one, this is a new feeling.
It is not very different from being a Muslim or a member of any other minority in India. Wherever you go, you are aware that people may be suspicious of you or just not used to the idea of you. Do you blend in or do you wear community indicators such as a cap, facial hair or veil? Do you feel the burden of proving your loyalty and citizenship again and again?
Being like that all the time is exhausting. And when the most powerful political party in your country wins an election partly by making you the enemy, it can be downright terrifying. So maybe the first step you could take to fulfil your duty as a citizen is this: Get to know someone from a background different from yours. If you are in the majority, reach out to someone from a minority background, and vice versa. Doing so will help you imagine what it is like to be in each other’s shoes.
A second step is to keep your MP accountable. In 2016, I launched NetaData, a start-up that focused partly on doing just that. I wanted to aggregate all publicly available data on our political leaders and give them a score. But one of the problems is its top-down approach. Three years on, I think a bottom-up approach would have worked better. For example, what if we all ran a Facebook page or group for each MP seat in India? We would need very few resources to maintain this if we truly developed a grassroots approach. And if we had more data on our MPs, they would be more accountable.
My third suggestion is to ensure our democratic institutions are not eroded further. We have seen how the Election Commission failed to censure political parties for flagrant violations of the model code of conduct. There are hundreds of such institutions in India. “Adopt” one such institution. For example, if you are interested in higher education, you already have a stake in ensuring the right people are placed in charge of our great universities. If these places of learning and research are to reach the potential of a great global university, we need to protect their free expression and autonomy.
The writer and academic Eric Liu, who wrote a book, You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide To Making Change Happen, on how we can exercise power as citizens, has much to offer to us on this difficult journey. Our job as citizens, he says, is “not getting wedded to any political ideology or orthodoxy except for the idea that our job now is to challenge unearned privilege, to break apart monopolies, to deconcentrate power, to make the little citizen bigger, and to fight the feeling of helplessness….”
Democracy isn’t just about having free elections. It is about dozens of other things, including keeping our leaders accountable and ensuring a dialogue with each other.
For too long have we relied on various organs of the state to do their job of safeguarding our democracy. They, and this includes the opposition and even the media, have failed us. It is now time for us, the citizens of India, to step up.
H.R. Venkatesh is a John S Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University. He is a former editor of The Quint and a former senior anchor at CNN-IBN.