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GREAT INDIAN ROPE TRICK

It is very puzzling. What would a candidate need a rope for in his election campaign? To rappel down the side of a dais in case of a terrorist attack? To lasso hecklers at election meetings? To pull an election jeep out of the mud where its wheel has got stuck, as in Karna’s chariot? To impress potential voters with a Houdini act? Magic might be a promising solution, because there is a knife too on the list that gives the price of a rope (Rs 100, no more, no less). This is the list of prices for things that the Election Commission considers essential for a candidate on his campaign. It is as mysterious as a priest’s list before a ceremonial act of worship, and as prescriptive. The EC has listed the price of every commodity it thinks the candidate might need (including, considerately, a ‘side pillow’ for Rs 550) and has also determined menus, prices of lunch, dinner, snacks and bottled water, times of meals and numbers of cold drinks — handfuls of puffed rice have not been numbered — together with vehicle hire, accommodation charges, venue arrangement including charges for precisely numbered bouquets and garlands, and so on. The list is itself a prescription, like a caste law: keep within it or else. The ceremony about to commence is the worship of democracy, and its high priests are, without a doubt, the election commissioners.

What is a celebration without ritual? Democracy may have something to do with equality and freedom, but the Indian psyche remains mesmerized in its love for ritual, regulation and the prescriptive detail. It is the Brahministic spectre that dominates, revelling in hierarchies, restrictions, and impenetrable instructions, almost as though philosophers and leaders like Gautama Buddha or Mahavira, Nanak or numerous other reformers who challenged the orthodoxy of oppression had lived and worked not here but on another planet. So caste systems, named and unnamed, continue to drive the noble ideal of equal rights in this country.

True to old tradition, the EC’s goals are moral and noble as its approach is weighty and prescriptive. It has even decided how election manifestos should run. For example, no promises can be made without an indication as to where the money to fulfil the promise would be coming from. Since this is for the sake of ‘credence’, no doubt the EC feels that without its help people would believe the incredible and candidates would become liars. When the aim is to ‘cleanse’ the political arena, the EC must go all out to bind the candidates to the strait and narrow — is that what the rope is for, then? — by dictating what they say and what they eat. Transparency and fairness are noble goals, as is accountability in the candidates’ mandated expenditure amounts. It is only in India that the price of a toilet brush has to be listed to achieve them.