February 23, 2020
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Election Without An Issue

Despite Seshan's smoking gun, the campaign circus steals into the Indian small town

Election Without An Issue

IN 1977, there was a strong anti-Indira Gandhi wave in the wake of the Emergency. In 1980, the voters emphatically registered their disapproval of the Janata Party's internal squabbles which led to the collapse of the short-lived government and brought the iron lady of Indian politics back with a thumping majority. Four years later, Rajiv Gandhi rode the crest of a sympathy wave following his mother's assassination and won for his party a record number of seats in Parliament. In 1989, Bofors was the overriding issue that led to a Congress rout in almost the entire North and catapulted V.P. Singh to the prime minister's seat. And, in 1991, Rajiv Gandhi's assassination at Sriperumbudur by the LTTE resurrected the Congress and brought P.V. Narasimha Rao to power. All these elections were bound by one strong common thread: emotion.

The run-up to the general elections for the 11th Lok Sabha, in contrast, is marked by the complete absence of any nation-wide issue. And the Election Commission's diktat against too many posters, banners, cut-outs or post-midnight meetings has also robbed the polls of their traditional colour. But yet, the great Indian democratic festival is being observed passionately by the people. And political organisations, too, have devised ingenious ways to beat the system. But before we go on to enumerate these in detail, a summing up of the highlights of Campaign 1996.

  • No national issues dominate this poll.
  • There is no nationwide wave for or against any political combine.
  • Yet, there are mini-waves at the local level which are dominated by local issues as in the case of Tamil Nadu, Bihar, West Bengal or Madhya Pradesh.

  • The absence of major issues have led to a greater campaigning on lines of caste and community.
  • Everybody, including the politician involved in the campaign, believes that the polls will result in a hung Parliament.

Admittedly, Seshan and his EC colleagues have been somewhat of a spoilsport. Much of the gloss has been destroyed by the Commission's orders on the do's and don'ts during the campaign. Gone are the days when a leader's convoy would roll into a hamlet in the early hours of the morning, four to five hours behind schedule, to find 40,000-50,000 enthusiastic people waiting for the meeting. Gone are the days when West Bengal parties would vie with each other for the most artistic graffiti. Also missing are the huge cut-outs which defined the political skyline of Madras. And yet, the fun is not all lost.

In Punjab, for instance, the people have a chance to participate in the first real popular election since 1985. The 1991 election was held under the shadow of the gun and the mainline Akali Dal had boycotted it. The fear of the gun has diminished now and the people are extending the joy of Baisakhi to the polls. Far away, in Tamil Nadu, the two frontrunners M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalitha have found ingenious ways to circumvent the EC's fiat against cut-outs and hoardings. Some giant cut-outs, hoardings and graffiti portraying a smiling Karunanidhi still appear in Madras. They bear no political message, but felicitate the script writer-turned-politician for his 50 years in the Tamil film industry. The dazzling show on the Marina beach on April 14 to commemorate his golden jubilee should have made the EC see red, but it could do nothing since the event was avowedly non-political, and had been organised by the film industry. And Jayalalitha still beckons the voters, also with a smile, from the towering hoardings of the Alagu Security Services.

Similarly in Bihar, Laloo Prasad Yadav has conjured up a low-budget circus of sorts, complete with parrots, elephants, camels and dwarfs, to canvass for the Janata Dal in major towns.

But more than the skilful circumventing of the rules, it is the indomitable spirit of the people—the voters—which makes for the festivity of the elections. The voters have become too used to this once-in-five-years festival, the biggest, the most secular, and with the largest participation in democratic India. This festival, more than any other—apart from Republic Day and Independence Day—marks the celebration of free India, and the people will not let go of the joy associated with it.

There is no denying that in some quarters, particularly among the urban middle class and the intelligentsia, there is a cynicism for politics and politicians. But then it is not the urban voter who has sustained democracy in the country. History has time and again proved, that it is the rural mass of farmers, agricultural labourers and artisans who have kept it firmly rooted to the national soil.

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