This can’t be real I thought as I watched the findings of an opinion poll unfold before me on my television screen after driving 1,100 km in the heat of Andhra Pradesh, stopping in forest settlements, small villages, old and new towns, and the urban sprawl of Vijayawada.
Perhaps it was the smart suits and carefully selected ties of the learned men discussing the poll’s findings. Maybe it was their polished English. To me they seemed to be living in a different world from people I had just met — the tribals with their colourful lungis, the bare-chested Dalits of coastal Andhra, the old woman who said “all we care about is getting something to eat”, the political workers out canvassing in the mid-day sun, the academic so close to the grassroots that she knew every detail of the Telengana campaign, and the civic conscious citizens of Vijayawada.
I entered the world of Alice in Wonderland when I heard the pundits declare that 66 per cent of politicians were doing a good job. No one, but no one I talked to would have agreed. Then that world went topsy-turvy with the announcement that 74 per cent of the electorate thought politicians were more interested in making money than serving the nation. This contradiction is apparently the result of “voters of India displaying some schizophrenic tendencies”. But then surely it’s not possible to tell which way a schizophrenic is going to vote.
The opinion poll’s discernment of a general swing towards the Congress and the importance of the Telengana factor didn’t bear out my findings. It seemed to me there was no general trend, the trend differed from constituency to constituency. I had been surprised by the lack of interest in the Telengana issue, both in that region and in coastal Andhra. So back in Hyderabad I decided to check my findings with the two main political parties, Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam, or TDP, and the Congress, whose job it is to know what is happening on the ground.
Prabhakar Reddy, coordinator of the Telugu Desam campaign, asked: “Is there anyone who is believing these poll results'”
He too felt this was to some extent a constituency to constituency fight. That, he explained, was why Naidu had taken so much trouble over selecting candidates, spending 400 hours in the process. I thought the TDP coordinator would disagree with me when I said his party did not appear to be making much of the e-governance reforms which had made his leader so renowned. But he agreed explaining that the process was new and there were teething problems. He thought voters were interested in more mundane issues like drinking water and jobs, which was what I found too.
At the Congress headquarters, a relaxed P. Upendra, who I remembered as information and broadcasting minister in Delhi when he was in the TDP, was surprisingly willing to admit that the Congress had made a mistake by overestimating the Telengana movement.
“We were too anxious to get into the accord,” he said, “so we gave away seats we could have won and the Telengana Rashtra Samiti didn’t have good candidates for them”. He did not think “the common people” had been touched by the Telengana issue.
In coastal Andhra, I had found the memory of Indira Gandhi did live on, especially among the poor. When I asked an elderly man driving his cows home in the evening whether he remembered Indira, his face lit up as he recalled seeing her 40 years ago. “The elders of our village still say they liked the rule of Indira Gandhi,” he said. The wife of a farmer out for an evening walk was also an Indira fan but she asked: “She is not alive now so how can I vote on her face'” The Congress is trying to persuade her she can by promising to bring back Indira Raj.
I met Jayaprakash Narayan, the founder of Loksatta, an organisation campaigning for fairer elections, to get an independent opinion on my findings. He felt the party system had completely collapsed — politicians had become entrepreneurs buying and selling seats as though they were shares. But he still believed 80 per cent of Indians voted for a party. When I suggested this might be a contradiction, he said candidates mattered because of the personal marginal vote they brought. I suggested that perhaps the candidate mattered more and he replied with a smile: “The trouble with Indian elections is almost any answer is true and untrue at the same time.”
Judging by the wide variety in opinion polls on Andhra Pradesh, perhaps that should be the pundits’ motto. I believe that I have discovered certain trends, but accept there can be arguments about them. I certainly don’t think I have found out how the vote will go. The truth, which will only be known when the votes are counted, is far too complicated for that. The call is also too close. Can anyone forecast the result in a state in which the Congress lost 30 seats by less than 500 votes last time and 10 seats by less than 70'