An Inside View of Indian Politics
Next year, India will hold its 16th general election since independence. Thousands of candidates from dozens of major and minor political parties will attempt, over a mammoth multiphase poll lasting about a month, to persuade voters in 543 constituencies -- each having, on average, more than 1 million adult voters -- that they are worthy of the biggest prize in Indian politics: entry into the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament.
The story of Indian democracy, now in its seventh decade, is so unusual and so wonderful that there is hardly any lack of people to tell it. The academic literature on India's electoral system, major political parties, voting patterns, single-party and coalition governments, and the influence of caste, religion and gender on politics would fill a library the size of the White House. Equally, state and national elections consume a vast amount of journalistic space and editorial attention, and over the next year every variable that might affect next year's results will be analyzed minutely in the Indian media (except, as we shall soon see, for one factor: the role of the press itself in influencing election results).
But what is it like to fight an election in India? To win the nomination of one's party, to then canvass for weeks and months in city, town, village and hamlet, to work out voter expectations and deploy scarce funds, to track the campaigns of rivals, to make calculations from hard data but also follow one's hunches, to give dozens of speeches a day in an essentially oral and visual political culture, to distinguish between truth and lie, fact and rumor? What might one learn from the mind of a politician about the art of politics in the world's largest democracy? Here the available literature plunges dramatically, and this explains the allure of "Campaign Diary: Chronicle of An Election Fought and Lost," a recent book by the former member of Parliament Manvendra Singh about the general elections of 2009.
The book is an insider's view of an election, and an account, in the words of the author, of "the rigours as well as the rewards of political life." Singh describes contesting the 2009 election as the sitting MP of one of India's largest constituencies: Barmer, in the western state of Rajasthan, bordering Pakistan. The two-month campaign is both physically and mentally demanding. Much of the constituency is sweltering desert, and its settlements are often small and widely dispersed (until 1999, the writer explains, a number of villages were still serviced by camel-borne polling booths). Further, it is ethnically diverse, and its caste and religious politics are extremely complex. Complicating matters is the fact that Singh represents the BJP, the second-largest party in Parliament and the party of Hindu nationalism, a deeply reductive ideology that is challenged by the diverse characteristics of Indian life.
Many of the book's pleasures lie in its small but significant details about village life -- about myths, rituals, deities and saints specific to a place, about desert traditions and India's village- (or "gram panchayat") level governance system intersecting with the frames of state and country, big political parties and their cadre, the national media, and a market economy. This is a world that is often profoundly strange; to understand its political instincts and susceptibility to certain kinds of rhetorical persuasion, it helps to understand how it thinks about itself.
At many election meetings Singh is seen paying his respects to a "bhopa," a widely respected figure in the community who serves "a local deity as a priest-singer and in turn imbibes some powers, such as the ability to find a thief, or to ward off an illness by some chants." Everywhere he goes, the candidate must adapt to local sentiment and intricate new challenges. The election campaign is held in wedding season, which is a good way of coming across crowds. But when Singh goes to campaign among the Rabaris, a large community of nomadic shepherds in western Rajasthan, he worries that he might be seen to be endorsing a practice that is unlawful but traditional:
"The Rabaris are frequent violators of the law on child marriage, and...many such unions could well have taken place today."
At a meeting among the Meghwals, a low-caste community, the (high-caste) Singh knows that "there are always some who keep looking to see if the non-Meghwal guest will have water -- or anything -- from their hands" and makes it a point to ask for water so that all may know the old Indian taboos are being struck down.
Sometimes the urbane and cosmopolitan Singh, himself the son of an MP, educated in England and the U.S., cuts an incongruous figure among his constituents, many of whom seem to be living in a different century. But the writer is by no means insulated from the feudal codes, spiritual idiosyncrasies, and the universe of proliferating signs and portents and omens. At one event, he finds "that some branches of a jaal bush had been cut to make space for the tent. That lit my fuse, for the jaal has a significant spiritual connection with my ancestor, and it is never cut or even trimmed."
And sometimes he meets his constituents on their own ground with considerable dexterity, as when he goes to visit a dargah, or Muslim shrine, and signs the visitors' book "in Arabic, memorized from my college days." Even so, there are limits to his flexibility: "I cannot bring myself to wave like most politicians -- I just find waving to be so un-Indian." He prefers to acknowledge crowds by "raising both hands clasped together."
For all that we learn from such passages, there's probably no paragraph in Singh's book more significant (or revelatory of how the spirit of the election process may be ruthlessly subverted in next year's polls) than this one, from "31 March 2009," five weeks before election day:
A clutch of executives from a TV channel came to see me this morning....After the formalities, and without hesitation, they made me an offer that took me by surprise. They offered a coverage package based on monies to be paid by me. There was a ratio worked out by them for the amount of money to be paid for telecast time.... In the last few years, this has become a trend with both the old and the new media groups, each vying with the other to sell news space.
This is an instance of the adventurous new Indian news media practice, once limited to the most disreputable papers, that calls itself the near-oxymoron "paid news." In the weeks leading up to polling day in national or even state campaigns, many big Indian media houses now routinely work out deals with political parties whereby lightly rewritten PR copy praising the candidate's achievements is published, often on the front pages, as "news."
This collusion between political parties and the news media demolishes the wall between propaganda and reportage, and wins over millions of readers, many of them first-generation literates not accustomed to thinking of newspapers as anything but trustworthy. It also hollows out democracy and makes a mockery of journalistic independence and integrity, though it delights the marketing executives of newspapers and cynics who would argue that democracy is a sham anyway.
Perhaps there's no greater challenge to the integrity of Indian democracy than this cynical practice, which makes the news media not just an observer of political activity but also a prominent and powerful actor, available to the highest bidder. In next year's election, much will depend on whether the Election Commission of India is able to find a way of cracking down on this practice, one to which many politicians have more or less owned up.
After polling day, Singh finally heads home and gives himself a well-deserved rest, having clocked more than 20,000 miles on the road in four months. But on counting day, he finds he has been ousted by his rival from the Indian National Congress. All his work has been in vain, and his time in Parliament is over, perhaps for good.
Meanwhile, he has produced a fascinating survey of Indian elections as contest, spectacle, and social contract, and a most valuable glimpse "of how democracy works from the grassroots upwards."
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Chandrahas Choudhury at email@example.com
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