Election Diary: Voices Matter

A glimpse into the political conversations of everyday India

Illustration: Anupriya
Photo: Illustration: Anupriya

Black Smoke Meant Bad News

On a horribly humid afternoon on June 21, 2012, I stepped out of the Marine Lines station in Bombay (read Mumbai).

I usually walked up to my office which was also home to ‘The Old Lady of Boribunder’, situated in a charming heritage structure, opposite another architectural marvel—the Victoria Terminus (read Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus). It was a nice walk. En route, there were pretty, age-old buildings and century-old bakeries like the Sassanian and Kayani. There was something about the aroma of freshly baked bread and cakes mixed with adrak/ilaichi chai wafting through their humble kitchens. I looked forward to the walk. But that day, it was different.

There was chaos. Several fire engines, ambulances, and media vans were rushing towards SoBo (South Bombay). When I reached the main road, I saw dense, black smoke billowing out of a faraway building. All the pedestrians were standing still and looking in that direction, in shock and awe. For Mumbaikars, the traumatic memories of the 2008 terror attacks were still too fresh. Black smoke meant bad news. Something was up.

Chai and Conspiracy Theories

“Mantralay me aag lag gayela hai,” someone informed me in Bombaiya Hindi. Since there was too much traffic, I decided to stop by a chai ka galla around the corner for some time. Soon, 5-6 men arrived there, looking worried about the fire. One “Mr know it all” told the chai wala: “Isme kisi andar waale ka haath hai, maloom tere ko”. He said it with so much conviction that the others became curious. “Bohot saare mantri log ka scam ka paper hai andar. Uni logo ne lagaya aag.” And then, for the next 20 minutes, those men, who were complete strangers to one another, bonded over discussing various conspiracy theories—most extremely bizarre and comical. While walking to my office that day, I was very amused but also learnt something important ...

...Conversations are Important

People have views, obviously. You and I have easy access to information, based on which we can form informed and intelligent opinions (well mostly, not including the WhatsApp university gems). But there is a section, the common men and women, our domestic help, chauffeurs, cab drivers, auto wallas, hairdressers, shoe shiners, the real common janta. What I have observed is, among other things, is that they love to discuss politics, and after the Mantralaya incident, I make it a point to discuss politics with them whenever I get an opportunity. Why? Because they provide a fresh perspective, have interesting points of view, entertaining even.

And, in the present times, when most of us avoid having candid, heart-to-heart political conversations in the public domain, and we feel someone is constantly monitoring us, watching us, censoring us, telling us to shut up, these unfiltered, uncensored, unabashed conversations are a breath of fresh air.

So, these days, while sitting in cabs or autos, for instance, I ask the drivers about the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, and the long rides turn entertaining. Some explain to me why the present regime is the best thing that has happened to this country; some say maybe it’s time to give others a chance. And then they give me options about who the others could be. People have views about politicians and candidates as well. Sometimes, after hearing highly biased views about a person, a community or a religion, my BP shoots up, but I let them vent.

Like how my house help vented the other day. It was the day after the late-night arrest of a sitting chief minister. She was mopping the floor; I was reading the news on my phone. The TV was on and the channels were playing the said news on a loop. She stopped, sat on the floor, and while looking at his visuals announced: “Bahut hi galat hua ye, aisa bilkul nahi hona chahiye tha. Fasa diya.” I mentioned the allegations of a scam worth crores. She spent the next 15 minutes arguing with me, telling me why such self-made politicians, the “aam aadmis” are important for the country. That day, when I sat in the cab, the driver asked: “Ab kya hoga?” I braced myself for another round of fun discussion. But what he said while I was paying is worth pondering in the present context. “Logo ki awaaz band nahi karna chahiye. Public ko har topic pe bolne ka hak hai.”

Swati Subhedar is Assistant Editor, Outlook

(This first appeared in the print as 'Election Diary')