Indian elections have an unmistakably surreal quality. Even naysayers would be forced to accept this proposition if they were to consider the following facts. In West Bengal’s Raiganj constituency, the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate — an actor in the twilight of his career — reportedly begins his speeches by uttering the word “Kusumasa”, which had become some sort of a cult phrase after the release of a film that had featured him in the role of a Japanese man. In Mathura, the BJP candidate, a renowned actress, has been campaigning with a wilting lotus in the searing heat. Her opponent, an independent who shares the same name, has chosen the cauliflower as her electoral symbol. BJP strategists hope that the drooping kamal will help voters differentiate between the two candidates.
But it isn’t the BJP alone that is associated with the bizarre. Residents of Lucknow are apparently being assailed by bird ‘droppings’ — chits of paper that are being air-dropped by carrier pigeons, exhorting the people to vote for the Samajwadi Party candidates. Meanwhile, in Arambag, on being asked about the absence of loudspeakers or even public meetings from his campaign strategy, the Congress candidate reportedly said that as an environmentalist, he detested loud noise as well as commotion. It is another matter that environmental groups have complained about political parties, including the Congress, for ignoring the critical issue of noise pollution in their manifestos.
Understandably, while reporting these quirky incidents, there is an implicit attempt on the part of the media to invoke mirth. But conscientious readers would frown upon the media’s disinclination to report on India’s hinterlands consistently. One of the redeeming features of the Indian media’s coverage of the general elections is that intrepid journalists have fanned out to remote corners — Batgund (Kashmir), Koraput (Odisha), Gudalur in the Nilgiris and Kaliabor (Assam), to name a few places — and are sending dispatches about voters there and their grievances. But the media’s zeal of reporting from the margins is fleeting — post-election, vast swathes of India fall off the media’s map.
But the news that is trickling in even from the outposts of the Indian State is troubling enough. Generous assistance from political leaders has meant that polarization of the electorate on the lines of religion, ethnicity and caste remains firmly entrenched. So much so that the sop of vikas, or inclusive development — which, it is widely believed, has the potential to neutralize the threat posed by divisive politics — is itself under siege. This is particularly evident in Bihar where Nitish Kumar — the unchallenged architect of ‘Naya Bihar’, synonymous with metalled roads as well as reliable supplies of electricity and water — has discovered much to his dismay that voters continue to demonstrate a marked preference for caste and community considerations. Worse, attempts are being made to camouflage some of the inherent weaknesses of our democratic system. High voter turn-outs — celebrated as the hallmark of a ‘vibrant democracy’ — actually indicate the people’s anger at the State’s failure to meet even the rudimentary demands.
Floundering governance, a polarized electorate, prejudiced media, the implausibility of inclusive development, the redundancy of the environment — leafing through the nation’s poll diary can make one despondent. So one must thank the aged actor spouting Japanese phrases and the carrier pigeons for dissipating the gloom temporarily.