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Polls apart: Indira, Modi and AAP

On Day 5 of KLM, a “meaty” discussion on Indian elections between historian Ramachandra Guha and former BBC journalist Mark Tully, moderated by Ruchir Joshi, had a rather literary “garnish” — author Vikram Seth making a surprise appearance on stage and reading out a passage on India’s first national elections of 1951 from A Suitable Boy. Seth once told us that almost everything can be found in Shakespeare. The same, it seems, can be said of his magnum opus!

Titled Polls Apart, the session dwelt on how elections have changed between 1951 and 2014 and what it says about us as a nation. Mark Tully, who has been watching and reporting on Indian elections since 1967, said that his abiding memory is “the amazing number of people who will come out and vote knowing in their heart of hearts that nothing major is going to change”.

Tully seemed far more optimistic about the health of the Indian democracy than his fellow speakers, pointing out that while every national election in India does seem like a crisis point, one must also acknowledge that so far after every election, the Opposition has accepted the result, which doesn’t happen in so many countries. “India sometimes does overdramatise its problems but in the end it always pulls through.”

Guha, who opened with an election ditty from when he was nine — “Jan Sangh ko vote do, bidi peena chhod do, bidi mein tambaaku hai, Congresswala daaku hai” — paid homage to Sukumar Sen, the first election commissioner of India. Calling him “a pragmatic Bengali, if I may use the oxymoron” and drawing guffaws from the audience, Guha narrated how Sen had told an impatient Jawaharlal Nehru that he would need at least 18 months to organise proper polls after the Constitution was passed in January 1950.

“It is a matter of great shame that, among other things, there is no street named after him in Calcutta. May be Mamata Banerjee should get her act together,” Guha said.

Coming to our impending elections this year, Guha was confident that the Congress would have to “vacate office in a few months” but he also called the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate “a bully and a bigot”. Tully was more polite, simply saying he would not like to see Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India.

“Those who are slightly more sympathetic to Mr Modi think that he will change. I doubt that. I think at 62 you can’t have a personality transformation,” Guha said, adding that Modi “will damage Indian democracy but even he cannot destroy it”.

Tully gazed a bit into the future to see that Modi’s “authoritarianism will unseat him”. According to him, the worst government India has had was when Indira Gandhi had absolute power in her hand. “And anyone who tries to take absolute power in his hand, I think, will fall absolutely flat on his face.”

Then, of course, came the current flavour of the political pie — the Aam Aadmi Party. Ruchir wanted to know what the learned men thought of the AAP.

“I think it is a very exciting experiment. Of course one is worried about the way it has gone since then. But we do need someone to shake up the present lot,” said Tully.

Guha agreed. “It’s an exciting experiment, that could go terrifyingly wrong.”