Pay attention to the ghostly people who bear the brunt of your decisions
India goes to vote in less than a week and the upcoming elections are crucial because they will decide what becomes of the idea of India and the economic, social, and moral well-being of its people for years to come. So, the upshot is, vote wisely. At the ballot box be like Arjun, who could see nothing but the eye of the fish when he took aim. Tune out meaningless television, social media, dinner table debates, controversies, distractions - what Nehru and Advani did or did not do, how many chairs were empty in a rally, who carries a Mont Blanc pen and who carries a Reynolds, and who is losing the gaffe war.
Most of all tune out rhetorical campaign speeches because you cannot take a turn of phrase to the bank – be it Chowkidar Chor Hai or Main Bhi Chowkidar. As intoxicating as the mob frenzy, dog-whistling, and allusions might be, you cannot hold anybody accountable for a wink and a nudge. And that is what elections are for – accountability.
So, remember – eye of the fish. If you are wondering where to find it, start with the manifestos – cross check facts and figures, read the subtext, read and listen to real analysis of the manifestos from experts from all sides, spare some of the time you spend trolling or getting trolled and passively consuming what is sent your way for active fact-checking from unbiased and reliable sources. Do it no matter how blind your faith and how dogged your prejudices might be. Don’t be afraid. Facts won’t hurt you in the long run, nor will changing your mind or asking questions. But if this country goes to hell, the fire is going to get to you sooner or later.
Which brings me to my final suggestion – once you are done with reading, analysing, and thinking about the real issues in the manifestos, and before you make your mind up about who is good for you - watch Us.
Us is the story of the Wilsons - a wealthy family of four living the American dream until, one night, their vacation home is invaded by their dopplegangers wearing red jumpsuits. They call themselves the Americans and live in the sewers, and are cursed to suffer the consequences of the choices the Wilsons make without partaking in any of the gifts bestowed upon them. The dopplegangers are carrying weapons – scissors – but it is unclear what they want, except to be heard. As the Wilsons try to escape their wrath they discover their surroundings have been overtaken by other dopplegangers in the same red jumpsuits - holding hands, wreaking havoc, and leaving a trail of dead bodies behind in pristine suburban homes.
Yes, it a horror movie – but only somewhat. I mean, it uses tropes of the genre, but it is not more terrifying than what you see with your naked eyes every single day.
So, watch it and pay close attention to the people in red – the people who look like you but ghostly. They are the people tethered to the choice you will make at the ballot box – they will bear the brunt if you vote for only your kind, if you vote for prejudice, if you vote under misinformation - as they have been bearing the brunt of your choices for years on end.
They are the millions who are coming of age and looking for jobs. Jobs that do not exist and will not magically manifest with more reservation. They are the ones who are not fit to compete for the jobs you will take up because they had to drop out of school, or their learning outcomes are poor. Their children are shriveled or stunted because they do not get adequate nutrition. They die of illnesses that you recover from within a week because they have no access to effective healthcare. They are the ones with impossibly low wages, no job security, and no access to the justice system.
They are the Indians who live under the threat of violence because they have been othered – at the mercy of your ill-targeted anger, your majoritarian chauvinism, and the immunity you can buy with your vote and privilege. They are the Muslims and the Dalits. They are the tribals whose lands your grotesque machismo stands on.
They are farmers and farm labourers, who are so far behind in the line you are jostling to get ahead in, that even the farm loan waivers do not reach them. They have no titles over lands they till. Nothing shields them from heat, cold, floods, droughts. They don’t crack open the brandy in a heated room or watch the rain lash through double-glazed windows. They die exposed to the elements – as do their crops. Climate change that is not on your radar, even as you unwittingly contribute to it, is debilitating them.
They are the thirsty longing for water from rivers you pollute and ground resources you deplete. They are the women whose bodies are your battlegrounds. They are the men who you mock for living off doles – doles they work harder to get to than you have ever had to in an office.
They are the hunted and the humiliated, whose primal screams are not heard outside the netherverse they are confined to. And you know what is worse? The metaphorical netherverse of the movie is literal in this country because the roads you drive on are laid over sewers that are cleaned by sewage workers who physically enter them every single day, bare-handed, without protective gear. And haunted by the countless who do not come out alive.
Think about the weapon in their hands – a pair of scissors – a modest, everyday tool with productive uses. Think about why you don’t want these men, women, and children to surface with scissors in their hands to cut the umbilical cord that tethers their fate to your actions due to the accident of birth.
Think about what happens when someone from amongst them says, enough – when they organize themselves, hold hands, and line up to define your limits as you do theirs. Think about why they cannot call the police like you do. Think of the reasons you invent to fear them, suspect them, suppress them, kill them. Because they might invade your homes and threaten your lives, liberty, your children, and none of the false idols you worship might come to your rescue. Your liberty and children that are more precious than theirs, and your share of land that you are so certain is your own.
Think of that certainty. Where does it come from? Then think of the recurring image of the homeless man in the movie holding up a ripped up cardboard sign that says Jeremiah 11:11
- “Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.” Who is the Lord speaking of? Them? Or us? I ask because I am one of you.
Or simply think of stories you hold sacred – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Think of what happened when, despite Krishna’s repeated attempts at negotiating for a meagre strip of land for the Pandavas, the Kauravas refused to part with land worth “even the tip of a needle”. A war that no one won. A massacre in which Draupadi was avenged but wept as she washed her hair with the blood of her oppressors because she had lost all her children. Think of the price Ravana paid for his greed and ego, and the price Ram paid for the promised land of Ayodhya. Think of the price Mandodari and Sita paid.
Both epics have the same two morals-
1) Greed for land and resources - exclusion through power of those who are asking for their share of what is rightfully theirs – is ruinous and adharma.
2) No one ever wins a war.
Look for the semblance of the ideas and morals that are your civilizational and Constitutional inheritance. The eye of the fish will manifest itself – aim for it. Vote wisely.
Originally published in Telegraph India.