India’s 16th Lok Sabha General Elections and Persons with Disabilities: Avinash Shahi
This is a guest post by Avinash Shahi
When the challenges and daily difficulties of approximately 70 million persons with disabilities in public life are not highlighted in political rallies and in the TV studios, it raises a serious question about an elite political class’s commitment to empower persons with disabilities. Do they consider persons with disabilities as India’s citizens to be taken seriously? Politicians of major political parties are crisscrossing India’s vast geographical terrain to address voters. But neither Narender Modi nor Rahul Gandhi have ever bothered to utter a single word about their plan for voters who are persons with disabilities in their campaigns.
Party Manifestos and the Disabled
Though promises made in manifestos released by political parties are illusory and do not remain the same once parties assume power, nonetheless the mere mentioning of challenges faced by disabled persons in manifestos is not less than a big leap forward. Parties like the BJP, Congress, AAP and CPI(M) have devoted tangential space for persons with disabilities in their manifestos. The BJP has patronized persons with disabilities by adopting terminologies such as ‘specially-abled’ which raises serious question about its patronizing attitude against persons with disabilities. Disabled people do not want to be treated as ‘specially abled’ but deserve equal respect and worth in the society. The BJP manifesto says:
The BJP commits to ensuring establishing a web based disability registration system to issue universal ID for all applicable government benefits (healthcare, transportation, jobs, education etc).
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) created a political storm in the Indian political landscape by forming a government in its first stint in the National Capital. In the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, the AAP has given ticket to a disabled person contesting election in Koppal constituency in Karnataka.
The AAP in its manifesto has promised to highlight the issues faced by persons with disabilities. Section 26 of its manifesto writes:
Persons with Disability (PwD) constitute a social group whose disadvantage is obvious to common sense, but invisible to official policy that has so far not even taken the first steps to address their conditions.
The AAP has promised to enhance the definition of disability to include more deprived citizens in its ambit based on a social model of disability as propounded and advocated by disability scholars.
Perhaps to the astonishment of many politicians, persons with disabilities are also equally enthusiastic about the ongoing General Elections in the country. Many disabled voters are excited about casting their votes. Many have already shared their experience after casting their votes independently through the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). The are taking active part in political discussions and debates on social media such as Facebook, Twitter and on various mailing groups. This emerging but unnoticed trend clearly shows that political awareness is on the rise among disabled citizens. They are actively taking part in discussing matters of national importance: expressing their opinions on secularism vs religious fundamentalism, a corporate development model vs an inclusive model, and where do persons with disabilities stand in Narender Modi’s claim of Gujarat’s model of development.
Media/driven campaigns have also influenced their preferences in these elections. One can witness the charged electoral atmosphere in Sewa Kuteer, a government-sponsored hostel for male blind college going students at North Campus Delhi University. Students are divided into Pro-Modi and Anti-Modi camps. Of late they frequently engage in charged verbal exchanges about the pros and cons about Modi’s possibility of becoming Prime Minister of India. Such visible political activeness among the electorate, which comprises persons with disabilities, is still limited to urban India but the 16th general elections have brought about a paradigm shift in raising political awareness among one of the most marginalized groups in the country.
Mainstreaming of the Disabled
When Narender Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal address rallies, their speeches are discussed and debated by the media for hours. But sadly, even though 7 phases of the pols are over, till date, no leader of any political party has ever uttered a word about the difficulties faced by persons with disabilities in public life. Such silence by political leaders on the issues of persons with disabilities reveal the indifferent attitude of our political class which still believes that persons with disabilities are not the voters to be wooed. Therefore persons with disabilities need to attend political rallies in large numbers and make their presence felt.
In democracy, political rallies are one of the most preferred ways to connect voters in constituencies. Politicians address rallies to woo voters by touching their core problems and offering them ambitious developmental plans. But in India, where multiple diversities co-exist in myriad forms, politicians have become habituated to invoke caste, language, and religious identity to inflame passion in voters. Persons with disabilities should not only take active part in political discussions on social media but in order to get their concerns heard by politicians, they should attend rallies in large numbers and compel politicians to end their silence on the challenges faced by them. Greater visibility of persons with disabilities in political rallies will improve their citizenship status. And will unearth many misconceptions which retard their real inclusion in the mainstream development discourse.
[Avinash Shahi is researching disability rights for his M.Phil Dissertation at the Centre for Law and Governance JNU].