Yesterday was the eve of the Lok Sabha Elections in Mumbai. These elections are the ones that decide who gets to form the Government of India for the next 5 years.
Well, seeing that this is probably the first such major election to get comprehensive social media coverage, it was expected that there will be a lot of crap about it in my feed; There were noble appeals to everyone who is eligible to vote to go out and do their duty. Then there were quite a few discussions about the candidates, because in India, we believe in doing everything at the last moment. We even try to ‘get to know our candidates’ just on the night before voting for them. So yeah, there was a general frenzy of political interest and an overall sense of action.
But in the midst of all this hullabaloo, I saw a sudden surge of posts about an apparent outrage caused by an appeal from the head of an institution that you will find towards the end of this blog post.
This appeal goes against a popular candidate (without actually naming him or his party) and in favor of another party (again, without being explicit about it). I believe he was quite right in voicing his opinions about it and discussing with his students about who should get to form the government. Isn’t that what mentors are supposed to do? To direct their mentees without actually telling them what to do?
Well, that is perhaps what Fr Frazer Mascarenhas did by sending an email asking his students of St. Xavier’s college, Mumbai to consider a few things (that he pointed out in his letter) and to choose well when they vote. Now, I’m not a big fan of religious interference in politics and governance and I’m also not a fan of people who use their position of power to impose their beliefs on others. But there is definitely a difference between doing that and trying to convince people about something you believe in.
I believe Fr Frazer did the latter, but he was criticized and lambasted by the twitter and facebook mob for abusing his position of power and imposing his opinion on his students. I believe he did nothing of that sort.
We need to understand that though Frazer is a public figure and he represents an institution, he has every right to voice his private opinion and to use every available means at his disposal to do so. Provided that he doesn’t say that these are also the views of his institution.
In fact, he can even say that he speaks on behalf of his institution! It is after all a private institute and has never really even pretended to be nonpartisan. It is after all, an institution based on Christian values and funded by a Christian trust (correct me if I’m wrong). If they can support a religious movement, what is stopping them from professing support for a political one? They’re free to do so in a democracy.
But what is funny, is that Frazer hasn’t even done that! He has made an incredibly politically correct statement and has tried to be within his limits. Just because he has used his reach as the head of an institution to spread the message, he shouldn’t be castigated for that. How else should he have done that? He felt strongly about something and shared it with the people that he felt were in the best position to do something about it – his students.
The ‘outrage’ that ensued is clearly a knee-jerk reaction that shows that although we think we are open-minded, we aren’t ready to respect a difference of opinion. I ask all those who are bubbling with righteous indignation to think about all the times that Frazer has spoken about the Lord his savior. Going by their logic, wouldn’t that be imposing his religious belief on his students?
Sure he might not have used his email to tell everyone about it, but then again, religion is personal and Fr Frazer probably respects that and that is why he doesn’t try to invade your privacy. Politics on the other hand, is a matter of public opinion and Frazer was well within his rights (and even morally so) to go about telling his students to choose well and to make the right decision. Having said that, even if he had used his reach to proselytize his religious belief or any other opinion, I wouldn’t be surprised, nor agitated. The man has earned the right to do so.
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it
– Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in The Friends of Voltaire.
 Full text of Fr Frazer Mascarenhas’s letter to students:
The approaching elections have brought an interesting discussion to the public forum on what constitutes human development and how it is to be achieved. The Gujarat model has been highlighted for our consideration. That is very apt because it puts in stark contrast two current views. Is the growth of big business, the making of huge profits, the achievement of high production – what we seek? Or is it the quality of life for the majority in terms of affordable basic goods and services and the freedom to take forward the cultural aspirations of our plural social groups that make up India?
Gujarat may be doing well in the first sense, although not as good as some other States in the country. But all the Human Development Index indicators and the cultural polarization of the population show that Gujarat has had a terrible experience in the last 10 years. Take the example of education: schools for the ordinary populace show abject neglect with a very high dropout rate in the last 10 years. Higher Education has not been allowed to move forward. To take just an example, St. Xavier’s College Ahmedabad, thrice NAAC accredited with an equivalent of the A grade, has not been able to gain permission from the Gujarat Government for Academic Autonomy, for the last 10 years and has finally won a battle in the High Court to approach the UGC directly for this status. Gujarat has also been the worst performer in settling claims and distributing title deeds to tribal people and other forest dwellers, as shown by the latest data put out by the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry. Till 2013, the State, with 15% tribal population, settled only 32 per cent of the claims, the lowest rate in the country.
As opposed to this, efforts like the Rojgar Yojana and the Food Security Act have been called “election sops”. However some of our best social scientists like Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have supported these as necessary in the emergency economic situation the country and the world is facing. The country is grateful that committed activists like Aruna Roy and Shailesh Gandhi have worked with the Government to initiate and sustain the Right to Information Act which makes accountability possible. Corruption still needs to be addressed effectively but since it is so prevalent at every level of society, it will take civil society long agonizing efforts to root it out.
A massive investment in health and education is sorely needed in our country of widening disparities and those who support big business and its unethical profits will never agree to such public expenditure for the masses. In fact, the worsening situation of environmental degradation and depletion, in the lunge for growth and profit, shows up the real intentions of the greedy. None can withstand this, as seen by the many clearances given in a week’s time after the recent change of guard at the Central Environment Ministry, which had earlier tried to hold the line under a different Minister.
So what lessons does a reflection on the approaching elections teach us? The prospect of an alliance of corporate capital and communal forces coming to power constitutes a real threat to the future of our secular democracy. Support for people who pledge to work to take Human Development Indicators higher and who commit themselves to a pluralistic culture in diverse India – this is the hope for the future. No magic wand or divine miracles will come to the aid of the Indian people. Their reasoned choice of individuals and political parties who promise to work for a real quality of life for all, will see India prosper or flounder on the precipice. Choose well!