Econ Mom is back!

Hi there, readers! I know I’ve been absolutely absconding on the blog front and have written simply nothing for the past 3 months. But well, I’ve been writing serious stuff for a change. And have come out with something like 10 reports on different aspects of local body elections for the State Election Commission of Maharashtra. And those too, completely formally written, not even a whiff of a joke. Its so not me, and its taken a chunk of my mind to be that serious!

Well, actually, I would have completely given up on Econ Mom, had it not been for Anagha, who’s not only my best friend, but also my blog follower and severest critic. It so happened that we met suddenly, without planning it, both of us after having dropped respective charges to respective classes and enjoying that “I am free for 50 minutes now!” mommy moment. I guess we could both recognize the slightly wild and loony look in each others’ eyes which only mothers are known to identify, and after laughing madly for a minute, got gossiping about this thing and the other.

And after a while, it came to why I’ve stopped writing. “Don’t you stop writing, Econ Mom,” said Anagha wickedly. “People may start thinking that Teenager doesn’t bother you anymore and that Hubby gives you five-star treatment at home.”

WHAT! That is a serious charge. Teenager grows more obnoxious by the day and Hubby, hmmm. The lesser said about him, the better. Nah, this won’t do! So I got down to writing the blog, pronto.

Three months of continuous election research has converted poor ole’ Econ Mom into a Political Mommy though. But I’m not complaining. It’s been exciting, using econometric methods on political databases, and it gives one a rare look into why the economics of decentralization and development just cannot work in this country. The representatives of the people are so ill-equipped to do any which developmental project at even the basic levels; hell, most of them do not even know what their own job is!

Last week. Around 5:30 p.m. The Phadke household was whirring quietly. Teenager was reading a book (I think he’s reading the Wimpy series for the 131st time or something), Hubby was browsing through newspapers, happily humming an old Geeta Dutt number. He was going wrong on the lyrics, but I was too busy to be reacting. Hmm, but it gives me ammunition for a fight later. Heehee.

I was peering quietly into my laptop, which was simply spewing up data on those candidates who had filed their nomination forms and affidavits for contesting the Pune Municipal Corporation elections. Hmm, 36% have a criminal charge against them. Of these, 30% have serious criminal charges- rape, murder, assault. 45% are Crorepatis or have patis which are Crorepatis. Interesting, of these Crorepatis, 45% have studied upto the 8th standard. My stats package gave out a negative correlation between education levels and assets, and I got worked up.

“Nonsense!” I exclaimed loudly.

 Hubby sauntered over, didn’t quite understand the SPSS screen and asked me, with evident interest, “What happened?”

“Oh, I’m so irritated, I can’t tell you. Look at these buggers who’ve got aspirations of becoming people’s representatives. “4th standard pass”, this particular entry says. And this other one is even better. It says the woman is not only B.A., but also XII pass, and also X pass and also 4th Standard. GAWD! If this woman does not understand that when asked for the education level, she has to only tick the MAX education level she cleared, tell me, what does she think she is going to do for my city? AAAAAAAAAAARRRRRGH, I am BUGGED!”

“You’re over reacting, honey. It’s ok, give that poor woman a break!”

“You know what? I would have, had there been one of this type. But there are something like 217 such completely idiotic applications and they feel they can represent ME!”

“Mom? Don’t yell. I’m getting disturbed. A child can’t even read peacefully in his own home these days!” That was Teenager, making stupid remarks, but quite obviously enjoying the “Mommy is mad at someone else” moment.  

“And you know what, young man..” I turned to Teenager, sharpening my claws for an attack, when the doorbell rang.

“I’ll get it!” said Teenager hastily, getting out of intellectual harm’s way.

Two women, wearing saris. Stoles around their neck, bearing the symbol of the political party they represent, were standing at the door. Teenager was quite taken aback at the visitors and hollered for me.

“Namaskar!” said one of the women. “I’m going to be contesting the election from this Ward and I thought I’ll come and see you all…”

“Oh! That’s so nice of you! Please do come in. You must be tired with your campaigning!” I was a bit intrigued that a candidate had come home.

She was a bit reluctant but did come in and accepted a cup of chai. “So Madam, why should we vote for you?” I asked her chirpily, even as a sharp intake of breath from Hubby told me that I was being rude.

“Ummm…” she faltered. I think she too was a bit taken aback at being asked this so openly. “Because…because, yes, because I’m going to really work for this ward!” she concluded triumphantly, with the other accompanying lady making strong, encouraging noises to egg her on.

“And, what work have you done in the past, Madam?” I asked, keeping my voice non-threatening and as even as possible.

“She has done great work!” That was the companion. “Last year, she held a vaccination camp for polio vaccination! You really should vote for her!”

“Madam, it is Amitabh Bacchhan who gets the mothers into the camp with the Do Boond Jindagi Ke campaign. You have to tell me what it is that YOU have done about it!”

The lady was scared by now. “Yes! I remember! I…I..I held a Haldi Kunku in the Sankranti festival!”

The Companion nodded vigorously. “Yes! Haldi- Kunku! And she distributed gifts and spread cheer and good will! You really should vote for her!”

By now I was upset. As in, really getting into top form.

“Madam,” I began in my most steely voice (somewhere in the background I could see Hubby making frantic movements to get me to stop), “people in this ward really want some development. You have to tell me your plans for solving the traffic issue, for segregation of wet and dry garbage. I need better streetlights and safety. I can NEVER park my car anywhere in this God forsaken ward; you have to create parking spaces (My voice had climbed up 10 decibels and I was unstoppable). You can’t be serious, Madam. Your pitch for my vote is extremely weak; unless you tell me your solutions for my problems, how do you expect me to vote for you?”

The women were looking extremely frightened by now.

Hubby pitched in helpfully. “Oh, don’t worry, Madam!” he said in a booming voice. “She says that to every candidate! She will definitely vote for you!” (Teenager was busy suppressing a giggle). I glared at Hubs.

“No, I won’t. Tell me your plans, Madam!”

Madam was looking positively scared.

“Well, actually I don’t really have any such plans..But I still want you to vote for me!”

I think even she realized how terrible that sounded. And then, the poor poor woman ventured in a low voice, “Ma’m, I really don’t know what plans to talk about. Could you advise me, what should I say to the voters?”

I must admit, this threw me off balance. I wanted to laugh out aloud. Oh, the irony of it! The candidate was asking me what she should tell other voters! But I recovered, quickly, I must say. And I informed her snootily, but quite kindly, “Madam, you need to tell people your vision for this ward. For example, there are no parking spaces. Parking cannot be planned horizontally in a growing city. Build a 14-storey parking tower in Kothrud!”

“Why 14-storey, Madam?” The Companion asked me idiotically.

“Aaaaaaaaargh, any number of storeys will do! Rather these storeys that stories!” I caught Hubby’s eye, seeking appreciation for my well-placed pun. I instead got a “Please stop talking” look.

“Tell people how you plan to have compost pits in gardens or something like that..”

“Wow, Madam!” said the candidate, suddenly full of confidence. “Bas, this is it! I am going to put in a 14-storey parking tower in Kothrud…and have compost pits!” She had the damn thing by-heart.

 “Well, now, people want an educated candidate in the ward, and someone with Community Building experience, Madam..I am a researcher with the State Election Commission and see these reports?” I waved some of my reports to them…”In these reports, we’ve created strategies for…”

Hubby and Teenager were rolling their eyes at each other.

But the women were done with me. “We really really need to leave!” They said hurriedly.

“You have to vote for me! I’m going to put up a 14-storey parking tower!” The lady told me sheepishly on her way out. The Companion nodded vigorously. “Yes, yes…lots of parking. Vote for her!”

And that was that. As I closed the door, Hubby shook his head at me. “Have you lost it, woman? Why the hell did you wave your reports at them? Gawd, you positively terrified them, Manasi..please control yourself.”

Teenager was on the phone, talking to Best Teenager Friend. “Embarassing. She keeps on and on about her election work. It’s ok petrifying people outside home. At least I can pretend I don’t know her. But at home! Can’t even claim I don’t know her!”

Just then, the doorbell rang…

“We come from the best political party in town! We’ve got you your voter slips!”

“Oh, won’t you come in?”I said icily…And Econ Mommy continues…

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Econ Mom, voter perceptions and a dash of Tennyson

“Hi, Mom! What’s for dinner?” That was Teenager, back from his badminton practice at about 8:00 p.m.

“Well,” I said enthusiastically, “there’s roti, beans, dal and carrot raita in curd!” That was me, happy and secure in my belief that I’m feeding all the right stuff to my family.

“What? Beans? Uuuuuuuuuugggggggggggghhhh. NOONE eats beans, Ma, except us. And we eat it every third day! Beans, potato, beans, brinjal, beans, capsicum, beans…?”

I looked at him speculatively. Teenager has taken this one thing from me, for sure. He can exaggerate. The boy can have a golden career as an economist, I started thinking. “The GDP growth rate of India is 7%, nnnno, its actually 7.3%, nnnnnnnnaaahhh, it’s more like 7.8%!” Yeah, he can really do a fine career out of this wonderful trait. Put him in the RBI, and your CPI will go crashing down to 4% or wherever it is that Urjit wants it to be. Put him in NITI Aayog, and you will get your growth numbers right. Put him in the Commerce Ministry, and India’s trade to world trade ratio will cross the dreaded 3% psychological benchmark in a matter of minutes! Heehee, the boy has potential, I tell you. He simply HAS to become an economist.

“I am NOT going to eat this! Give me something interesting, Mom, I’m hungry! And I’m bored” That broke my reverie and jerked me back to reality. And the reality is that teenagers have absolutely no clue or interest in any career profiles. They have only two massive sensations. One, hunger and two, boredom. Sigh.

“Beans are great for health! And …”

“Mom, why can’t you make Chhole-bhature or pasta for dinner?”

“Because the former is oily and the latter is maida. Only calories. No nutrients. Beta, dinner has to be healthy! And this week, we’ve not really had beans for about…”

“20 hours,” piped in the Hubs, with a sly smile. “This time she has really broken all records and cooked beans within the usual 24 hour deadline!”

“Oh, shut up, both of you! And boys, you can’t declare a strike at 8:00 p.m. Food is ready, I am beat and I am not going to cook anything else. It’s too late for that.”

“This is so not fair!” Teenager, indignant with rage and upset at the gastronomical disappointment. “If it’s not possible to change the menu at the last minute, then ask me earlier, Mom. Next time, ask me when you go shopping for veggies. ONLY the vegetables I approve should be bought next week. Else you’ll keep on dishing out what you feel is right…”

That’s interesting! Thought Econ Mom, surfacing suddenly in Mrs. Phadke’s kitchen. Hmmm, isn’t that exactly what the State Election Commissioner had been saying, just a couple of days ago, in our meeting at Mumbai?

“We need to take a look beyond our usual role.” The Commissioner, as always, had come well prepared with his ideas on what needs to be done. “The role of the State Election Commission of Maharashtra (SECM) is to conduct local body elections in a free, fair and transparent manner. And we do that, to the best of our capacities and abilities. But the real question is, even if the election is conducted fairly, are people really getting a fair choice to choose from?”

For the uninitiated reader, let me just put in a little bit of gyan. When the candidates file their nomination forms for an election, that is when the voters come to know what is the mix of people from which they select a people’s representative for themselves. With great foresight and I must say, with a lot of gumption, the state of Maharashtra offers a “NOTA” i.e. “None Of The Above” option for its voters, so that the voters do not have to always choose the least of all evils. They are getting a choice to say that they want none of the candidates at all. And this, is supposed to be an absolute triumph for democracy.

However, deeper thought tells you that while NOTA is great for freedom of expression, the fact that hordes of people have this expression is itself worrisome. Thus, what is happening is that candidates filing nomination do not match the expectations of the electorate. The authorities know this, but they can’t do much about it. So, they decide to give the NOTA option to the electorate so that their voice can be heard loud and clear on the day of the election. “We do NOT like these candidates.” The problem is, that it is kinda late to do anything about this, just pretty much like it was too late for me to cook a different recipe for Teenager at 8 p.m.

“The true solution is to give them a voice before the elections.” That was what the Commissioner was saying in the meeting. Is it really necessary to do that? Even while this thought hit my mind, I got the answer. “Our job is to do everything in our scope to strengthen democracy. If the electorate is not happy with the candidature, we can’t just sit around offering NOTA. NOTA might bring the issue to light, but it certainly does not resolve it.” NOTA is the dressing on the wound. The team was brainstorming on why there is the wound in the first place.

And out of that emerged one solution. Accordingly, we’re currently doing a snap poll on voter perceptions, or what the voters want. What kind of a candidate do they really want? Do they want people who are clean, or is the priority on efficiency? How many voters feel that candidates ought to be well-educated in order to be a good representative? What proportion of voters feel that women make better representatives than men? How many people are of the opinion that good candidates stay away due to criminalization of politics?

Data analysis will soon reveal voters’ preferences. This is to be done prior to the filing of nomination forms, so that the political party heads too will get a pulse of what the common man wants. This will hopefully feed into a more scientifically designed ticket distribution process, with at least a few deserving candidates getting the tickets. Rather like buying only those veggies that Teenager approves of. This will truly give voice to the electorate and make the process more participative, which is exactly where we want to go, right?

Right, but, will this work? Even if the data analysis brings out these trends, are political parties going to toe the line? Are they going to go by statistics, or by the simple chemistry of dynasty and money? We all know the answer, don’t we? Then am I doing something futile? Why should we create this data-base on voter perceptions when we know that the true users of this data, the political parties, can, but won’t use it?

I sat in my chair, post dinner, brooding over the futility issue, when Teenager started a discussion with Daddy dearest on poetry. They were both arguing about what a line in some poem meant. I was far away from the discussion, disturbed and restless. Suddenly, Teenager propped his English text in front of my eyes. “Mom? Have you ever read these lines?” he asked.

And Econ Mom found her answer. In a dog-eared literature text-book. The answer to why a scientifically designed statistical survey has to bring out voter issues, political parties be damned. “Tis better to have loved and lost”, said Alfred Lord Tennyson, “than never to have loved at all.” Bravo.