Signing petitions for Anna Hazare
Today I read two emails and two facebook updates asking me to sign a petition to the Indian government supporting Anna Hazare’s fast unto death against corruption. I did add my signature, but as I looked on with amazement at the swelling list of signatories, I started wondering how useful this whole act will be.
Consider a hypothetical case where a man regularly beats his wife. His neighbours decide to petition him saying “Dear Mr. Wife-beater, Please stop beating your wife. We want to have a neighbourhood free of wife-beating”. Will such a petition stop him? I seriously doubt it. More likely that he will tear the letter up and probably vent his anger at his intrusive neighbours by beating his wife some more. Now suppose the petition had said “Dear Mr Wife-beater, We know you beat your wife. Stop it now or we will report you to the police.” This would have probably made the wife beater think about how efficient the police force is, how serious his neighbours are and whether it is worth the risk of continuing his practice of beating his wife. If the petition said “Mr. Wife-beater, Stop beating your wife or the next time you step out of your house, all of us will kick the s**t out of you.”, he would probably reform the fastest, because he perceives the most danger (personal injury) coming from those with the grievance (neighbours) instead of an agent far removed (the police).
The most powerful component of a petition is therefore the consequences that arise from ignoring it. If there are no consequences, the petition might as well be toilet paper. So what dire consequences can the citizens of India threaten their government with? For all its faults, the Indian political setup offers Indians the extremely potent weapon of voting their politicians out of power. I have met many intelligent, educated, well-intentioned Indians who complain bitterly about the corruption and state of affairs in India and get eerily close to cardiac arrest during their fervent discourse. However, an overwhelming majority among these have never voted in their lives and don’t have plans to vote in the future. Those most capable of shouldering responsibility for long term decisions are therefore eschewing it, while those least suited are turned into king makers. I may be (horribly)wrong, but I will stick my neck out and say that a significant percentage of the petition signatories will lie in this category of non (conscientious) voters. We therefore have a toothless petition whose only function is to create the illusion of action.
Most of the non voters are extremely cynical of the voting process due to the well cultivated vote banks etc., but then there is no reason to be optimistic about petitions as well. Choosing to petition rather than vote is like being given a choice of cruise missiles or a teaspoon to fight a war and choosing the teaspoon. Breaking vote banks will take a while, but it is a better and more noble goal to focus effort on. Maybe a citizen driven vote bank, as proposed by Atanu Dey is the answer, but it hinges on the assumption that all voters capable of taking the long-term view make it a point to vote.
I am not suggesting that Anna Hazare is wasting his time. His act is commendable. He is investing time and effort and undergoing physical hardship for something that will probably not benefit him personally to a large extent. He has my respect. Anyone who joined him in the fast or attended a meeting in his support or is a conscientious voter also has my respect. They are signalling their desire to act and that they are willing to give up money, time or comfort to push their case against corruption. If I were a corrupt politician, I would be mildly worried. Anyone whose only contribution to Indian politics has been signing the odd online petition by filling an email address into a website and pressing “send” need to reconsider their position. Unless they plan to vote regularly and conscientiously and hold the government’s feet to the fire, Anna Hazare’s work is pointless and no number of online petitions will change that fact.