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General Elections 2014 is a mega farce in which rhetoric, horseplay, manufactured consent and a host of scriptless actors are playing their parts. The battle will be fought on the principle of Hobson’s Choice—take it or leave it, or worse still, choose between equally appalling options, choose when you have no choice. The jasmine revolution of India has come and gone, leaving a lot many Gramscians gloating over their scotch. NOTA (none of the above), the abstinence button on your EVM, is all that is left. In the context of such dismal travesty, the timely and clever 100 Things To Know And Debate Before You Vote by Hindol Sengupta makes for spirited reading.
It is written like a ready reckoner of issues that should have mattered and set the agenda for this election—“from financial scams to womens’ rights and parliamentary spends”—instead of the dangerously covert balderdash that dominates the media space. Even as political parties publish their manifestos—three weeks before the elections very few actually have—Sengupta trains his lens on the real headlines, the real inequalities and violations. The appeal of this book lies in its clever ruse: condensing colossal matters into brief arguments (read chapters). Undoubtedly, the depth or canvas is lost at times but Sengupta manages not to totter on the political significance or multidimensionality of the argument. He is rarely self-indulgent, never losing sight of his role as a pre-poll moral compass. This book is not for those who might seek depth, but for those accustomed to the abbreviated and punchy public sphere of Twitter. Written in sentences as crisp as hashtags, the chapters are often no more than succinct paragraphs.
Sengupta weaves through the casuistry of Indian politics and governance. Signposts range from factoids that quantify the entitlements of our MPs, statistics to reveal how MPs with criminal records win elections more often than their clean colleagues or a chapter called ‘Return on Investment’, which through anecdotes and evidence of asset establishes beyond doubt that if you are in politics you do make money. A crisp analysis of the money spent meaninglessly on providing security cover for politicians of all sorts, including ex-tourism ministers, comes handy, as does a chapter called ‘MP and the i-Pads’ which details how our politicians swell the traffic on social media but actually reveal nothing and are paranoid beyond reason. Quick reminders are served up about critical economic issues that no one is talking about such as debt—that is, fiscal responsibility. We are spending much more than we earn. India, as opposed to its haughty projection as a middle income country, has run up massive debts for expenditures that are far from critical. Scams to remember, a list of riots since independence, a glance at the leaky cash carnival of pds, the book is your mnemonic antipasto for the polls.
Written to hold your busy attention briefly and effectively, some chapters are like posters of matters such as hunger and malnutrition on which many have spent years and reams of research, advocacy and outrage. Sengupta gives it a half page and calls it ‘People, Hungry’. Remember, when such brevity offends, that this book is your aide memoire for that moment at the EVM, and never ever pretends to be anything else.