I want to tell you about one of my friends. Her name is Asha, and she took care of me when I spent my summers in India. She is from the lowest caste of Indian society, more familiarly known as “untouchables.” She is poor and illiterate, yet deeply passionate about politics. In fact, many Indian people are. Despite corrupt politicians, a bureaucratic government and close to no transparency in the voting process, Indians often engage in their local and national elections in the ways they can, whether it is through reading and discussing the news, protesting or performing a variety of other political acts.
An Indian thought leader of the 21st century, Jay Prakash Narayan, stated during a speech to leaders at Google, “At one level, India is the first country in the world to embrace universal adult franchise on the first day that the Constitution was written. For [a] largely illiterate and extremely poor country, to embrace adult franchise on a universal basis from day one was actually a great adventure. It was an enormous expression of faith in the wisdom of the bulk of the people of the country.” But, what Narayan failed to acknowledge was the violence that women and people of lower castes are subject to when they try to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Thus, while every Indian has the right to vote, not all can realistically exercise that right. And women like Asha will likely never cast a ballot for fear of sexual violence or verbal abuse at the polling station.
In many ways, despite an inability to fully perform her own civic duties, Asha pushed me to perform mine. She would watch parliamentary proceedings and local and international news every day for hours. I remember a particular evening when she listened to President Barack Obama give a speech about gay rights dubbed in Hindi. For her, a woman who had grown up on a farm in a remote village, the concept of being gay was something she had never encountered. But that didn’t stop her from grappling with a seemingly foreign concept. She asked me what my opinion was on the issue as well. And for a 14-year-old whose parents didn’t really talk politics around the dinner table, I had no idea what my opinion was. Heck, I only knew one gay person. But Asha, in her aspiration to understand the issues, was unknowingly pushing me to do the same, to formulate an opinion and then be able to stand by it.
Here was a woman who ostensibly had no voice in society, no stake in her country’s electoral politics and she could not fathom that changing in her lifetime. However, she was intensely passionate about the goings-on of not only her government but that of countries around the world. I often wonder what Asha’s outlook would be if we traded places – would she acknowledge and benefit from the many opportunities I’ve been bestowed and failed to think twice about? I often think about what sort of joy it would give Asha to be an American citizen and be able to vote in an election without the threat of harm. I also think about how she would feel at a place like the College, where the voting process quite honestly could not be easier, where your ballot is delivered to your email inbox.
Over the past few months, I have thought a lot about the voting process – what it means at the College and on the broader national scale. What I’ve come to are three simple truths. First, at the College, there is very little we all have in common, very little that binds us, if you will. However, what we do share is the opportunity to vote in a biannual election. I know, it’s not much of a revelation. But it is if you think of the people around the world, like Asha, who will never have the opportunity to cast their vote in any election. The second truth is that your vote is yours and no one else’s. Over the next few days, you will hear candidates for various College Council positions and organizers for referenda pitch why you should vote for them or their cause. I hope you will listen but, ultimately, you can vote how you please and your obligation to explain that vote should primarily be to yourself. Finally, the vote is one of the most powerful tools each of us has, but its power only rests in its use. So use it.
Meghana Vunnamadala ’16 is an economics major from Newport Coast, Calif. She lives on Spring Street.