Every few days someone asks me, “How come you lost in the elections so badly?” Others nod their heads saying, “Activists never win elections.” So, the question is why are social activists less likely to win elections? Instead of blaming the electorate for selling their votes or the opponent for corrupt practices, I would like to focus on the problems in our own approach. Having organised farmers, women, rural labourers and Adivasis for twenty years through a Sanghathan called Shramik Elgar, I contested the state assembly election from Brahmapuri constituency, Maharashtra in October 2019 and lost miserably. My primary opponent was the Shiv Sena-turned-Congress heavyweight politician Vijay Wadettiwar. I am enumerating below some of the reasons for my debacle with the hope that others who want to contest elections will not repeat my ‘mistakes’. The list is incomplete as I am writing down the immediate reasons that come to mind and in no particular order.
- As an activist my focus had always been on strengthening the weak and fighting for justice. By this very definition I was more in touch with the weak. My connect with the stronger members of the community, the decision makers, and the caste/religion leaders was limited. I did not have an effective working relationship with the very people who sway votes in communities. One presumes that since there are only a handful of strong vote managers in any given community, a direct connection with the people should have worked in my favour. But it does not happen that way. The strong are strong for a reason and they come down heavily against community members who do not fall in line. The social and cultural ties in rural areas are impossible to cut easily. Throughout the campaign period a consensus is arrived amongst the strong members within the caste/religion community and all others have to abide by that. During my campaign, I was committed to meeting voters directly rather than identifying the vote-managers. This method is financially and physically taxing. It is also redundant in elections where vote consolidation is primarily around castes, sub-castes and religious identity.
- The focus on justice also meant that my work had been spread across the district and not concentrated within a particular constituency. The focus of activism is always on issues, on resolving issues, on tangible benefits for the poor and I never gave a second thought to the importance of geography. In an MLA election however, the geography matters. Organising 500 people from 100 booths is more important than organising 5000 people from 50 booths. Presence across booths is essential and booth neglect is hara-kiri.
- I thought having a massive rally addressed by a sitting Chief Minister (Arvind Kejriwal) would help me, and indeed the crowd of more than 15,000 people at Brahmapuri was extremely encouraging.
Arvind Kejriwal’s rally in my support, Brahmapuri, 2019
However, I learnt through this experience that one team of young karyakartas at the booth is worth five chief ministers. I should have taken care of the booths first. What is taking care of a booth? This means finding five or ten people willing to take responsibility of bringing out the vote on D-Day and having prior meetings with them to understand the requirements of the area. Apart from other things, these five or ten people expect a minimum payment. It can be as little as Rs. 1000 for the group (there is no upper limit) and some chivda and tea when they keep awake the night before. Now this chaha, chivda and cash must reach the booth no matter what. Rallies can wait but not the booth. Without tight booth management there was nobody to counter the rumour-mongering and the exchanges of money that happened the night before voting day.
- Activists have to understand that the image of the relentless crusader is counterproductive. The activist says the right things, does the right things, takes the moral high ground which can be seen as quite unnatural and even stifling by the people around them. The life of most people, in contrast, is lived on the blurred edge of the legal and illegal. Ordinary people pay and take bribes, beat their wives now and then, abuse their kids, indulge in drunk brawls, they mine sand, cut trees, smuggle liquor. Such people don’t want to vote for someone who appears to be on the right side of things all the time and whose very presence appears to be a judgement on how they, the voters, live their lives.
Women welcomed me in large numbers
- I found that many voters have two neatly labelled boxes in their heads –samajkaranand rajkaran. The activist is put in the first box and the politician in the second. Any messing with the contents of these boxes unnerves them. They have different expectations and different relationships with the people in the two boxes and they prefer to keep it that way. This is why the same people who stood by me in agitations and came with me to jail were painfully conflicted when it came to casting their votes.
- Make sure that every person who is or was close to you is either on your side or at least not with your opponent. My erstwhile colleague was already with my opponent and I failed to take that into proper account and therefore failed to strategise. Much before the MLA elections, the general secretary of Shramik Elgar resigned and joined the Congress. He contested Panchayat Samiti elections and is today theSabhapatiof Saoli Panchayat Samiti. Because I did not think things through carefully enough, that single person alone caused a haemorrhage at the ballot box. Elections is the proxy for war and sentiments have no place here. The same person who was with me from his teenage years, learnt from and honed his leadership skills in Shramik Elgar had no qualms in sharing every bit of inside information and doing everything else in his power to ensure my defeat. We may squirm when a politician openly says that victory comes through saam daam dand bhed but that is the truth.
- Don’t presume that past ‘victories’ on issues will lead to a victory in the election. The prohibition campaign led by Shramik Elgar which had culminated in the liquor ban in the district in 2015 contributed to my defeat. On the one hand people who drank or those who were ideologically against the ban had already made up their minds against me. Women were irritated with the shoddy implementation and somehow blamed me for it. The opposition gained massively on this issue. And in fact, Vijay Wadettiwar ended up making an election promise to lift the ban if he were elected. It is one promise that he has kept. Many people ask me, why is it that although women in large numbers were at the forefront of the prohibition struggle, they did not vote on it. One answer is of course the lack of the proper implementation and another is that rural women are still not an independent vote bank. The primary axis of vote consolidation is still caste and religion and not gender.
Village to village, door to door
- Shramik Elgar’s two decades long work in the district did not count for much in the elections and Aam Admi party remains a non-entity in the area to date. I realised that in elections, especially the state and parliament elections, voters need some reassurance about the candidate. This reassurance comes from an established political party or from family associations over generations or from caste associations – somebody needs to vouch for the candidate. In my case, there was neither party nor family nor a caste to stand surety. In effect, when a Bengali upper caste woman who speaks Marathi with an accent decides to contest in a rural constituency where the electorate is drawn from OBC, SC, ST and NT communities she is looking debacle in the eye. The lesson is that one needs to find a combination of party and caste backing which will reassure the voter.
- Overcoming the odds in an election requires loose change. Money is legitimately required for travel, food, banners, propaganda materials, rallies, programmes, offices and so on during the campaign. (Money is also required to keep in touch with the constituency in between two elections.) If you don’t have a minimum of Rs. 20,000 (there is no upper limit) per booth in your personal kitty on the day when you go to file the nomination, then you are facing an immensely uphill task. Brahmapuri constituency has more than 300 booths spread across three large talukas which means that even to just think of contesting in that constituency requires Rs.60,00,000. Activists often value (or at least maintain an image of) austerity, frugality and simplicity to such an extent that it makes them uncomfortable while negotiating for money. They are incapable of raising and managing money at the scale required for an assembly or parliamentary seat election.
- Social activists fail to traverse multiple universes, the manner in which the best of politicians do. The most successful politicians train themselves to speak in multiple voices. They to talk to the village woman, the local goon, the smuggler, the party workers, the industrialist, the media the bureaucrat, the police and the professionals with the same elan. Further, this all-around political networking and public relations is a two-way street. The politician while talking to and working for the various sections of the ‘public’ ensures that these actions are linked to their electoral campaign. They try to get something out of every public interaction whether in terms of votes or media publicity or moving up the party ladder or mobilizing resources. This type of blatant calculations is missing in the relationship between the activist and the people. The activist while raising people’s issues rarely if ever thinks about negotiating something in return from the people. Without incorporating some element of ‘ruthless pragmatism’ (to borrow the words of Frank Underwood) to balance their idealism, activists like me will continue to face electoral defeats.
– Paromita Goswami