(This column, about a dreary parliamentary election in India, was published in DNA edition dated April 15, 2009.)
Elections in India are, of course, deadly serious, big-money businesses because we like to think they determine the political and economic destiny of a billion-plus people. But in equal measure they are – or, at any rate, used to be – colourful carnivals, high on high-decibel campaigns, slogans, drumbeats, sparkling oratory, idiosyncratic humour and all the endearing little oddities that reflect life and other social transactions in India.
Politicians would come around asking for our votes every few years, trying every trick in the book (and a few that aren’t in any book!), and for those few weeks of campaign time, we were treated to an engrossing reality show, the likes of which no television scriptwriter could conceptualise. Perhaps it’s a reflection of a ‘maturing’ of our democracy or of how serious the game has become that the two principal political parties are campaigning this time on slogans that are mind-numbingly boring. Or that the most ‘memorable’ election speech this time was by a foul-mouthed, upstart politician.
It wasn’t always like this: in some previous elections, even when politicians resorted to name-calling, they did it with a light touch that, even when it wasn’t always politically correct, was more mirthful than malicious. There was, of course, more than a fair bit of outright hate-mongering afoot, but there was enough buffoonery as well to compensate for all that serious stuff.
My own favourite over-the-top bizarre campaign story is from the 1991 elections, when – I kid you not – chicken biryani figured pivotally as a campaign theme. Mani Shankar Aiyar, who was Rajiv Gandhi’s buddy from their Doon School days, was contesting on the Congress(I) ticket from Mayiladuthurai in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. As a Brahmin (by birth, even if not, as he claimed, “by conviction”) contesting in the Dravidian heartland, he was up against it, particularly because his principal, DMK rival’s campaign was sustained by venomous anti-Brahmin rhetoric.
For a while, Aiyar tried to keep it clean by talking of developmental issues and promising unrealistically to make Mayiladuthurai “the Dubai of India”. But when he realised that his rival’s anti-Brahmin platform was gaining traction, he decided to take it head-on by projecting himself as a meat-eating Brahmin, in the belief that it would render him more acceptable to a carnivorous constituency of Dravidians. Aiyar even challenged his rival to a contest in the village square to see who could eat more chicken biryani. His campaign’s masala recipe was well received, and Aiyar became perhaps the first politician to win by making a fondness for the pleasures of the flesh a campaign theme!
This year’s election has also been low on sparkling oratory of the sort that A.B. Vajpayee and V.P. Singh used to enliven campaigns with. L.K. Advani has in the past confessed that Vajpayee’s rhetorical flourishes gave him a complex and left him tongue-tied, which perhaps explains why the BJP has been compelled to dig out Vajpayee’s old speeches on the stump this time. V.P. Singh was something of an oddity: put him in a room with mediapersons, and he would get pretty monosyllabic, but barely minutes later, on an alfresco dais, in front of 50,000 people, he would wax lyrical. It’s perhaps a sign of the times and of today’s leaders that parties – from the Congress(I) to the CPI(M) to the BJP – are imparting speech training lessons to their leaders.
Perhaps there’s just too much riding on elections these days for parties and candidates to not be seen to be taking them seriously, which probably explains all this prepping of candidates and parsing of policy details. For voters too, every election reflects, in a sense, the triumph of hope over experience: we vote in the expectation that somehow this time it will be different, and we want to be taken seriously as voters. But it would be nice to spice up our election campaigns every once in a while – perhaps with some chicken biryani masala…
(Update: It’s come to my notice that this column has been shamelessly plagiarised by M.H. Ahssan, arguably India’s biggest plagiarist; he claims to run a Hyderabad-based news service called Newscop and maintains three mirror sites, and virtually every one of the articles he has posted online has been plagiarised – from many mainstream media articles. M.H. Ahssan is now desperately trying to cover his tracks, and is now posting under other names such as Maxcop and David Morgan!)