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Women voters queue up in Ri Bhoi district of Meghalaya on Saturday. (PTI)

Where polls equal money & music

The problem with deadlines is that one has to write this article a day before the election. Voters of Meghalaya and Nagaland vote for their next government and legislatures on February 23. In Meghalaya, the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), a nearly defunct militant outfit with presence in the Khasi-Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, has called a 36-hour bandh beginning February 22 at 6pm. This has cast a pall of gloom as people do not know how to react but my guess is that people would come out to vote nevertheless. One reason people stay indoors during a bandh is because they cannot rely on public transport and the private operators do not want to risk a windshield being smashed by a stone or a petrol bomb being flung at their vehicle. Private car owners, too, prefer to be on the safe side and so decide to stay indoors and relax.

The HNLC’s bandh call is to protest the failure of successive governments in Meghalaya to (a) solve the vexed boundary issue with Assam and (b) to curb influx from neighbouring Bangladesh. Both are genuine issues and resonate with a sizeable section of Meghalaya’s population.

Border bother

The boundary dispute had claimed several lives in Meghalaya in the past. At the border, villagers from Meghalaya live in a state of constant fear from their neighbours in Assam. They are helpless when their agricultural land and produce are usurped by them. Also on the Meghalaya side of the border the police outposts are not strong enough. The few policemen posted there are also intimidated by Assam police. Hence, a proud tribal race finds it difficult to accept this continued humiliation. But Meghalaya also has an influx problem from Bangladesh and the government seems to have no clue on how to settle this issue.

All political parties in Meghalaya assert that they will resolve the border dispute with Assam if elected. They have done this since 1977 with little success. No wonder the voters do not take them seriously. But voters also know this is a political issue that can only be resolved through politics and Track II diplomacy between the two governments.

The HNLC had been rendered redundant since 2001 when the government tackled the outfit head on. Now the HNLC is trying to stage a comeback and has caught on to an emotive issue to stir people’s sentiments. Tribals after all are called so because they nearly always think and act with their hearts and do not believe in being guided by reason all the time. But voters also know that a spent force and an underground outfit like the HNLC is least capable of putting pressure on the government to settle the border issue. They would still like to believe that a few principled politicians are better placed to do so through a series of actions. Hence, it is my belief that people will turn out in huge numbers to vote.

Politicians are well aware that issues mean nothing. They know they can win voters through bribes, through songs created especially for this occasion and that they can humour many a young dipsomaniac with alcohol which flows like the Nile even in the dry state of Nagaland.

Making music, creating songs and framing heart-rending lyrics is a cottage industry in both the states. Hence, young people in this business have made a tidy package.

It is a once-in-five-year’s windfall for the poor guys who hardly make money out of their talents in music and who, above all, cannot control the piracy in this business. Interestingly, in Nagaland, although the political patriarchs do not want to cede even an inch of space for the other gender, are appealing to women to vote since they are known to be more ethical and less slippery and compromising than men. Both in Meghalaya and Nagaland, politicians know that if they have women supporters and voters on their side then they stand a better chance at the hustings.

Infantile

So, when we talk elections here in Northeast India, we are talking about a different ball game altogether. Consider this: A Congress candidate in Meghalaya whose son also applied for a Congress ticket but could not get it and therefore contested as an Independent, went and campaigned publicly for his son against the official Congress candidate from the same constituency. And the Congress party cannot do a thing! What is also funny is the behaviour of the heads of traditional institutions in these two states. All of them claim they are non-political because they do not want to fragment the polity in their little neighbourhoods.

In Meghalaya, the headman (Rangbah Shnong) of a certain locality flew the regional party flag on his rooftop. On Thursday, the headman of another locality was seen dancing on a vehicle decked with Congress flags. The man is a senior lawyer who should know better.

But elections just turn the best of us a little insane and if not infantile. How else do you explain women in rural Meghalaya with little babies on their backs riding on a truck sponsored by a candidate to dance and shout slogans on his behalf?

But we cannot even blame the rural folks for this. Hardly anything ever happens in such a huge scale except Church services and no one is allowed to give vent to their musical genius or their dancing talents during such sombre occasions.

A shame

As for corruption and nepotism over which the urban elite gnash their teeth, the rural populace hardly care. Recently traders in Garo Hills complained of a sudden drought of Rs 50 and Rs 100 notes in the market. Later we learnt that the cashiers of politicians are actually executing a clever ploy. Instead of distributing big denominations (Rs 500 and 1,000 rupee notes) they give ten Rs 50 notes. If you multiply that by four, then Rs 2,000 means 40 notes of Rs 50.

This is a thicker wad of notes and it is how people are fooled in the villages. But it is also one of the reasons why candidates lose election even after spending a bomb. There is a slip in the chain of command. Yet candidates are so afraid of being caught with cash that they have to trust their aides who in turn have to trust the local level leaders. So even during elections money only trickles down to the least common denominator! It’s a shame really.

The period between casting of votes and counting them is the period of suspense and excitement. Once results are out the crowd goes mad with glee or weep in sorrow. Who says elections are dull? And who cares about the Election Commission of India and its dos and don’ts?

People have outwitted the best election observer and given many of them a run for their money. Elections here are a battle of wits and not of officiousness and babudom exerting control over the natural impulses of people. After the 28th, it will be back to business as usual and people will bottle up their grouses until 2018 comes knocking. But between this lull period one only hopes the guns do not boom and disrupt the false sense of security which the elected feel even as they drive across with their entourage of security strongmen who bully us into making way for the high and mighty.

(The writer can be contacted at patricia17@rediffmail.com)