“This must be the worst job in the world.”

The thought came to me while watching one of my favorite episodes from HBO’s much acclaimed series “Band of Brothers”. The episode, titled “Bastogne”, depicts the hellish conditions that the American 101 Airborne Division had to face during Hitler’s Ardennes offensive in 1944. In particular, it centers around the experiences of an army medic.

I can’t think of a worse gig (in recent history) than that. Imagine having your company being hit by enemy artillery, deep in enemy territory. As a medic, you have enough resources to help maybe five people. A dozen or so of your brothers, men you have gone through hell with, lie around you screaming in pain. Some are missing limbs, maybe one is blinded, there are pieces of others strewn around the place. It is now your job to decide which one of the screaming survivors to spend resources on. You can’t save everyone, you don’t have the resources or the time. The BEST case scenario is that you get to save a couple of lives by doing your best, maybe hacking off an arm or two, while the others, people you love, die in agony. That is your JOB! No “good” choices, only the ones that cause the least harm.

That is the mindset of many voters in India today. There is no escaping the feeling that when it comes to electing our leaders, there are simply no good choices. At all. In light of that depressing fact, what is one supposed to do? Well just like our poor friend, the medic, there are no easy answers.

But that’s not to say there are no answers at all.

Consider the following: Most of us would be comfortable with the notion of good and evil. Even if there is a subjective element here, by and large, the classification makes sense across cultures. At the same time, there are varying degrees of good or evil. For instance, I could choose to sponsor the education of an underprivileged child. That could easily be categorized as a “good” act. But how does that compare to the actions of Oscar Schindler during World War 2? Both acts are good but the latter is decidedly “better”. The same goes for evil. I could steal a car. Evil. But a Taliban nut that shoots a little girl in the head for wanting to go to school? Another level of evil entirely. There is such a thing as grading actions on a moral curve.

Politicians and the parties they represent, also fall somewhere on this moral curve.

When it comes to the moral landscape, as voters in India, we have 4 choices:

A) Not voting.

Doing nothing is a choice, not an effective one, but a choice nonetheless. This means choosing to not take part in the electoral process at all. Not surprisingly, this achieves nothing. It does, however, guarantee that a very small portion of the population (assuming a case where most people choose not to vote) gets to choose how things are run for the rest of us.

B) Spoiling your ballot.

Otherwise known as choosing NOTA (None of the above). Very often this is confused with point A. The key difference here is that you are still a part of the process and have exercised your constitutional right to vote. (This is what I have done so far across 2 elections). However, it can only bring about actual change if the overwhelming majority of people decide to do so. If 70% of the electorate vote NOTA, it’s a huge symbolic middle finger to the established political parties and a clear indication that they need to field better candidates. The downside, of course, is that regardless of said middle finger, somebody wins that particular election. In other words: if there are a total of 100 votes cast and 99 of them are NOTA, whoever manages to get that last remaining vote, wins. Not hard to see how this can seriously backfire.

C) Voting for an independent candidate or minor party.

In theory, this can be an effective long term strategy. In reality, no single independent is going to be Prime Minister anytime soon. It is borderline impossible. At some point, a coalition of independents would still need the support of major political parties just to get a single bill passed in parliament. And though a coalition of minor parties may be a little more effective, the instability that comes along with it makes it hard to recommend. More so in a time of crisis.

D) Voting for a party.

Here we run into a real conundrum. Given the state of things, option A and B are not options at all. And though the latter can still be effective, I would argue that the current political climate makes it so that there is a clear moral imperative to ignore option B. As for option C, it too, is ultimately ineffective, at least on the national scale. And this is the point at which it behooves us to start thinking like that poor bastard of a medic, hacksaw in hand. In other words, we HAVE to choose.

But which limb to hack off? Which life to save?

There are some things to bear in mind before making a decision.

1) Understand how a parliamentary system works.

One of the biggest misconceptions people have is about how powerful a Prime Minister actually is. Or rather, how much power he should have access to. The PM is (almost always) the leader of a political party. He (or she) is the face of the party. The flag around which his troops rally. As such, its his job to make sure that all the major players on his team, tow the party “line” (whatever that may be). He represents the nation abroad. At home, he manages the party whilst making sure that any actions are in line with its vision. In other words, the PM is a fancy CEO. Sure, he “leads” but, that leadership will never be at odds with the party’s ideology. The same way the CEO of Coca Cola won’t ever root for Pepsi. He can’t.

It is also worth mentioning here that he is just a single person.

And a single person within a parliamentary system cannot change shit. The entire system is designed precisely to avoid that very thing from happening. It’s frustrating but the fact is that a representative democracy is designed FOR gridlock. Decisions require consensus and deliberation. There are checks and balances. Things move slowly.

This is a feature not a bug.

The opposite of that? That’s how kings and dictators rule. Beholden to no one and without any oversight.  The PM is most certainly not a king, regardless of how much his fans wish he were.

So stop expecting him to act like one.

Things will move slowly. This, for me, has been the hardest pill to swallow. The impatience of my youth demanded immediate change. But time and/or cynicism have led me to believe that you can either have immediacy or freedom. Not both. In a large representative democracy, that never happens. The only real question is how much inefficiency can and should be tolerated. Not “if” but “how much”.

Be extremely wary of anyone who promises quick transformations. At best, he is lying. At worst, he is looking for a throne.

2) Voting for a “person” is a great way to be disappointed.

This is an extension of point 1. As discussed, a single person cannot and should not be powerful enough to direct the course of an entire country. A PM’s job is to guide and manage. Not to dictate terms. That is literally what dictators do. They “dictate”. There is no denying that a powerful personality is an asset in politics. Rallying around a powerful icon is a very human thing that echoes our tribal past. This is especially true in times of crisis (whether real or perceived). What a voter needs to be aware of is what a party stands for. Its historical origins matter. Sure, ideologies evolve over time and as such, viewing present day parties through a purely historical lens is seldom helpful, but the core philosophy doesn’t really change much. Nazis may give way to Neo Nazis and eventually the Alt Right, but the core idea of racial superiority remains. It’s worth reminding oneself that it’s not a “person” we are voting for but a party and by extension, it’s ideology. If a party is all about their “man” and his words, using his persona as an eyewash for their intended policies, that’s not a politician you are looking at but a human shaped distraction. If we are lucky, it’s a poster-boy, if not, a potential dictator.

And that, no democracy should ever allow.

3) Once the electorate loses even an ounce of power, it is gone forever.

All human behavior is guided by incentives. The same can be said of any human collective. Politicians desire power. Not always for purely nefarious reasons, they will not be able to fulfill the requirement of their office without it. But it is natural to want more of it. The reasoning is sound: “Give me more power and I’ll get things done quicker, without all the bickering.” Or worse, “We are under attack. The enemy is at the gate. Give me the power needed to protect this great nation.”

Even a cursory glance in the direction of a decent history book would expose these “reasons” as the lies they are. Every dictator through the ages has used the same excuse and it never ends well for the people under his heel. There will always be enemies and things could always be done quicker. Sacrificing liberty for security is a one way, permanent trade.

Once the powers of a government, ANY government expand, they almost NEVER contract. There is literally no incentive. You wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it. Expecting someone else to do is is both duplicitous and extremely naive. Pay careful attention to how parties react to the idea of limiting the size and scope of government. This, BTW, is my biggest complaint with the Left. Bigger government is never a solution. Ever. No matter how idealistic the goal.

To further expand on this idea, think of a financial planner. Imagine hiring someone to take care of your money. Let’s say this person has been steadily losing you money for twenty years straight. How would you react if his proposed solution was to ask you for more money, year after year? If the government cannot do its job with the power it has, the LAST thing it deserves, is more power.

4) Campaign promises are bullshit.

Actually, they are worse. Bullshit can at least be used as manure. Campaign promises are absolutely useless. At best they “may” serve as a vague indicator of intent. If you don’t understand that, you are either very young, very uninformed or just an idiot, plain and simple. Election campaigns are essentially glorified marketing programs. Redbull does not give you wings. Axe body spray doesn’t get you laid. And the shiny man on stage is not getting you 15 lakhs in your bank account. It would be a different story if there was accountability in politics. Unfortunately, there isn’t. So, stop paying attention to advertisements, which is all campaign promises really are. Judge any party by its actions whilst in power, not by its empty promises.

5) Institutions matter.

Look, I get it. The cops are corrupt, the judges are paid for and the press is a joke. But ask yourself what this country would look like minus all three, regardless of how broken they are. Having to wait an hour after dialing 100 on your phone is way different than having no number to dial at all.

There is a HUGE difference between saying that the institutions need reform vs the institutions are a hindrance. The latter is authoritarianism. There is no argument to be had here. ANYONE that suggests that an independent judiciary is a problem, is himself a problem. Anyone that opposes the freedom of the press, is opposing the very idea of freedom. There should be a zero tolerance policy when it comes to stuff like this. Sure, there is a balance to be struck, the law is useless without a long arm to go with it after all. But let’s not burn the barn down to kill a few rats.

6) Words are not just words.

The politics of division hinge on creating divides where none exist, or to worsen the ones that do. Anyone that claims to speak for the “people” is vastly different from one that claims to be the voice of the “true people”. Exclusion is a devastatingly powerful tool and one that most people simply do not give enough credence to. And nothing can exclude an entire group of people with one fell swoop like words. To the Nazis, Jews were “thieves” and “November criminals” before they became “lice”. To the Hutus, the Tutsi were “snakes” and then “cockroaches”, before they were “blood suckers”. Peasants in Stalinist Russia were merely “Kulaks” and “enemies of the revolution”. Any one of those phrases should have been ample warning signs to the societies that tolerated their use. None of them thought genocide would follow sub-humanization. Millions paid the price for their ignorance.

Pay very, very close attention to whoever uses phrases with the outright objective of excluding people from a conversation. Using words like “pseudo intellectuals”, “libtards” and “traitor” are red flags. They are weapons. And the hands that wield them are seldom benevolent.

Any political party that benefits from such hate, either by open encouragement or consent by silence is showing you its intent.

Words usually precede action. Pay attention.

Above all, understand that bad politicians are not countered by good politicians, but better citizens.

Given all this then, who does one actually vote for?

Some clarification here. I am not suggesting that these points are the only things one should use as a filter. Entire tomes have been written about governance and one could easily fill warehouses with works on political philosophy. To think one can replace all of that with a single blog post is absurd. My intent here is to present a “ready reckoner” of sorts, more for myself rather than anyone else. Further more, I choose to limit my choices to the two primary political parties in an effort to keep things simple. The parties being the INC (Indian National Congress) and BJP (Bharatiya Janta Party). Within the broader Indian context, these are are two biggest dogs in the fight.

Furthermore, lets just call a spade a spade. As far as I’m concerned, this ridiculous mess we find ourselves in, is the INC’s fault. They fucked up. Fucked up bad. So bad that they actually made someone who was accused of being complicit in the deaths of women and children look like a “GOOD” choice. That’s like, a whole new level of fucking up.

That being said, lets see how both parties fare when seen through this filter.

1) Both parties have had prior governments. Both have had their flaws and both delivered in certain areas. The INC has had a long history in this country and has held power for the majority of the time. As such there are more pluses and minuses in their corner by virtue of being at the helm of affairs longer. The biggest threat to India’s democracy after the tumultuous 40s was under Indira Gandhi. Someone who tried to extend her power so far that she ultimately paid for it with her life. Yet, the economic boom India has seen since the turn of the century was due to the policies enacted while the INC was at the helm. The policy decisions under them have ranged from effectively progressive to mind-numbingly stupid. It would be hard to argue that they actively tried to change the democratic nature of the country though (Indira obviously is an exception here). Identity politics is one thing, the politics of exclusion is something else entirely. This is something that is important to keep in mind going forward. In other words, intent matters.

And regardless of how much ardent BJP supporters would like to think their party of choice has been instrumental in providing “clean governance”, their ranks are full of criminals, just like the competition’s. Point is, neither side can claim moral superiority. As far as economic growth goes, the INC has the advantage here, even if it means that all they did was to reverse the damage of Nehru’s early soviet inspired economic policies (incidentally, this is something I discussed on the podcast). To my mind, its biggest failure has been making the idea of “political dynasties” a norm in Indian politics. It is the reason why the name “Gandhi” has become easy to vilify. There is no denying the encouragement of kleptocratic tendencies here.

The important thing here, is to look beyond whoever the “face” of the party is.

2) Historical roots. No contest here. After shedding its pro-British skin in early 1900s, the Congress was instrumental in playing a pivotal role in India’s independence. Its leaders are the reason India is a secular Republic free of foreign rule. The BJP on the other hand, owes its existence to the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) A “Right wing Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization”. Virtually every word in that phrase should be a clue. While it may occasionally pay lip service to the idea of “integral humanism”, it has never shied away from pushing its “Hindus first” agenda . Throughout its short history, the BJP’s politics have hinged on exclusion. Every upsurge in its popularity has been preceded by a religiously inspired act of hooliganism or outright murder. Whether it be the demolition of the Babri mosque or the support of Yogi Adityanath, religion has always been its lodestone. The historical roots are bad enough, but the very idea that a major political party maintains close ties with a paramilitary organization should be setting off alarm bells 24/7. As far as I am concerned, historically speaking, the BJP does not have a leg to stand on.

3) If you have been paying any attention at all to recent events, certain alarming signs should jump right out at you.
– The way the current government has successfully made parliament redundant.
– The concern expressed by the judiciary.
– The suspicious death of a Judge (Props to The Caravan’s investigation into this murky affair).
– And of course, my personal favorite: Rewriting history.

Never before has there been a more concentrated effort to redefine what it means to be “Indian”. This is one area where the singular mindset of the BJP is exposed for what it is. For all the faults of the Congress, nothing this brazen ever manifested itself. To reiterate, this goes beyond mere identity politics and right into the politics of exclusion. The vilification of Nehru, the open worship of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, these aren’t just fringe elements spewing nonsense. There is such a thing as tacit agreement. Sometimes, silence can speak volumes.

4) Campaign promises. For the sake of entertainment, let’s mention two of the most laughable ones. Modi is giving everyone 15 lakhs. And Rahul Gandhi will make Amethi another California. Sure you guys. And I’m going on a cruise with Wonder Woman on Bruce Wayne’s yacht. To anyone still buying this, I have the number of a Nigerian prince who’d be very interested in talking to you.

5) Institutions. During the time of emergency in 1975 Indira Gandhi tried very hard to change the very democratic nature of the country. It would not be an exaggeration to say it was the greatest crisis that the Indian republic ever faced after the 1940s. Along with her son Sanjay, Indira set upon a campaign of forced sterilizations, land grabbing, arrests of opposition members and censorship. The fact that India corrected course here, speaks to the strength of its institutions, damaged as they were. The checks and balances worked.

It seems the BJP has learned from the mistakes of its rivals. Though it hasn’t tried to openly march RSS goons into any prominent newspapers, it did attempt to reign in the press under the guise of a “fake news” bill. Its IT cell has been hard at work spreading misinformation via social media while coming down hard on any legitimate journalist they perceive as problematic.

But their biggest crime by far, is making the Parliament redundant. If a party must be judged by it’s present actions, then the BJP has no moral standing at all.
– Passing the budget in 36 mins sans any discussion? Check.
– Legalizing 42 years of foreign donations to election campaigns (without any debate, mind you)? Check.
– Blocking a no-confidence motion by derailing parliamentary function? Check.
All of this while dodging allegations of assassinations, religious bigotry and blatant disregard of any due process at all. It’s like another emergency, only in stealth mode.

Indira would be envious.

So where does that leave us?

There is clearly no black and white choice. No party is “clean”. In a system this messy, one could argue it isn’t even possible. But when graded on a moral curve, the choice is not that hard either.

Anyone that has been reading this blog for any appreciable time will know how much I’ve criticized the INC-lead UPA government while it was in power. It’s kleptocratic nature with its insistence on pushing a lineage of false “Gandhis” is disgusting. But it is nowhere near as dangerous as a theocratic pseudo fascist outfit with inextricable ties to a paramilitary force. The former, for all its many, MANY, faults, still managed to do more good than harm over its tenure. Even with its infuriating insistence on pushing the political future of a single family above all else, the INC’s agenda has always been inclusive. The BJP, however, judging by its actions over the last three years alone, not to say anything about its sordid history, represents an existential threat to the very idea of a secular democracy.

Some things just cannot be allowed to persist.

I can’t believe I’m typing this, for the very idea is galling, but I see no choice but to vote for the INC. This is a crisis. And there’s no “good” choices.

Like the scene from Argo that talks about the “Best bad idea”, this is all we have.

Time to hack off a limb.

The life you save may very well be your own.