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THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS

- Politicians get away with a lot if voters are divided into pockets

Watching the T-20 World Cup alongside the election coverage, I suddenly found myself wishing we had a poll-campaign equivalent of the stumps and bails that light up and flash when a ball hits them. Perhaps there could be a whopper-light on the politicians’ microphones that would light up each time they lie or make outlandish promises, or maybe one could put some sort of a programmed vibrating mechanism in all their different headgear that would make the cap, pagri or peacock crown jump up and down each time they spouted cliches or deflected questions with banalities. If the candidates were speechifying bareheaded perhaps a fluorescent dye could change the colour of their hair to a bright electric blue or purple. These signals could help the common woman or man identify some basic things and it would also make for more interesting television during election time.

If we pull back and look at these Indian elections from a distance, say from the point of view of an intelligent alien, then several bizarre things become obvious. There are about 825 million people voting in these elections. Out of these there are, maybe, 3,00,000 to 5,00,000 people involved in analysing the polls, writing about them, covering them on TV, putting the spin on them, designing the ads and TV spots, predicting the results and the consequences of the results. These three to five lakh people have a literate, newspaper-reading audience of about 200 million and a net connected audience of about 140 million (broadband only about 14 million). TV is, of course, a much bigger deal, with about 550 million TV consumers with 460 million satellite connections. Put very simply, a tiny, tiny percentage of the voting population is in a position — and trying — to tell the rest what to think and how to vote. In this, as we can see from above, the arenas for the most complex arguments and analysis, print and broadband are also the tiniest; as the medium gets broader the message gets more and more coarse, the odd prime-time TV-debate notwithstanding.

The most important thing about this ‘largest exercise in democracy’ is that the number of voters, when seen as a single mass, may seem unified, but actually the majority of voters, especially rural voters, are in small, atomized zones, quite isolated, most districts unconnected to everything but their surrounding districts. Lack of education and political connectivity doesn’t only affect the developing world, rural United States of America has its own kinds of isolations and disconnects, but things are very different in, say, western Europe. When Germany goes to the polls, voters in the northern Ruhr area are talking to voters in southern Bavaria; when France votes, people in Alsace in the east of the country have a pretty good idea of what many people in Normandy and Brittany at the western edge are thinking; there may not be enough of it but there is some dialogue between voters in the farthest corners of the country. In geographically smaller countries such as the United Kingdom, Holland or the Scandinavian countries the cross-nation ‘dialogue’ is, if anything, far more dense. What this does is it helps keep politicians somewhat honest and their promises somewhat realistic.

Sitting in Calcutta, someone like me is able to ask (not that I’ll get an answer), “Mr Modi, you’re telling audiences that you are the true secularist but how come your right hand man, Mr Amit Shah, is telling Jats in Muzaffarnagar that this is an election about Hindu pride and revenge?” Not that I’ll get an answer, but I can ask “Mr Gandhi can you please explain to us why you are more qualified to lead a government than Mr Jairam Ramesh or Mr Jyotiraditya Scindia? Why is your name the only one being mentioned, where is your team?” Sitting in a small village in some interior pocket of the country, a 22-year-old voter may not have the rudimentary knowledge required to formulate these questions. This atomization, this lack of knowledge, this dependence on ‘feeling’ or ‘intuition’ on part of the voter allows each and every major party to deploy its smoke and mirrors, its holograms, its conjurers and magicians, its demagogues and confidence-tricksters. To honestly defend your track record, to accept that you need to stand in the public dock and answer hard questions, the courage to put forward a detailed programme, the humility to accept past mistakes and propose a new approach, none of these are actual requirements in India at the moment.

Looking at this vote-harvesting festival from the outside, an alien (who has done the homework) might scratch its other-galaxy head and wonder: how come these parties attacking the Congress for continuing dynastic rule all have so many sons and daughters of politicians running for election? How come so many film-stars and sportsmen in the fray, what will they actually do for the people if they win? How come Modi and the Gandhis are still asking for votes when they should have long ago resigned into obscurity for all their huge failures? Why is the AAP wasting people’s time or dividing precious votes?

People who read this paper, and those who write for it, can ask these questions. As can our imaginary alien. Watching the dramas, both real and holographic, unfold, it gets driven home again that people like us are ultimately as irrelevant as aliens at election time. It would make no difference if all the Indians who are highly fluent in English decided to sit this one out and not bother going to the polling booth. Where we, the slice of 3,00,000 to 5,00,000, come in is before and after polling day. Before the day, we try and tell the rest of the 850 million how to vote. Sometimes they seem to listen to one bunch of us, sometimes to the other, and sometimes they shock the living daylights out of us. When the dust settles, however, the people who will benefit from the results, the ones who will administer the winners’ agendas, will, again, largely come from among us. This has been true since 1952 and it will be so after these elections as well.

Having said that, perhaps one is allowed a perverse hope. If an alien had the ability not only to see the macro situation of today’s political reality but also to look into the future, perhaps it would see this: that, no matter what the results of 2014, the next time India goes to vote for Parliament, whether it’s in 2016, 2019, or after an extended period of non-democracy even later, these elections of 2014 will prove to be the last ones where a majority of this country was atomized, isolated and tricked into voting in small isolated pockets. The one statistic I neglected to mention is that there are now more mobile phones in this country than there are eligible voters, some 900 million connections. By the next elections there will be many more phones, phones which will do a lot more, as well as a deeper sowing of net-connectivity. No matter who comes to power this time, the digital wave is one they are not going to be able to stop. And who knows if that intuition might not finally put our minuscule minority in its place. We may not have flashing microphones and jumping headgear by next time but we may well have phone apps that do the job for us.