July 12, 2020
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Give It A Good Shake

There are too many parties, too many leaders, too many analysts, too much alphabet soup—do we really need DMK, PMK, AIADMK and DMDK? Can anyone really tell them apart?

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Give It A Good Shake
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As far as I’m concerned, India’s latest election was just more proof that somebody needs to pick this country up by the ears and give it a good shake. There are too many parties, too many leaders, too many analysts, too much alphabet soup—do we really need DMK, PMK, AIADMK and DMDK? Can anyone really tell them apart? Also, the whole election thing takes way too long. Even an old-fashioned cricket match can be resolved in five days—and none of those days are dry days.

Nobody seemed to know what this election was about—reservation, the economy, terrorism, development, Hinduness or who gets to be the boss. Everyone was looking for a back door into 10 Janpath—er, 7 Race Course Road. The poor voted in droves, though they knew it wouldn’t make a difference to them who wins. The rich didn’t vote at all for the same reason. And I couldn’t find any party workers giving away free booze in my neighbourhood.

It’s over now, of course. But it’s hard to believe anything will be different. Once upon a time, Indian elections were supposedly ruled by anti-incumbency. But an Indian politician’s career is never dead, even if he’s caught red-handed taking payoffs from defence contractors or convicted of murder. Anybody thrown out manages to weasel his way back in, so rather than making government accountable, the democratic process has become a sort of revolving door. You walk through, put a stop to everything your predecessor was doing, start your own schemes, steal everything you can, and walk out again. For those on the sidelines, it’s like being forced to watch the first four episodes of American Idol—the ones with all the talentless buffoons—over and over again. Or a series of cricket matches that continually end in draws.

As a dumb American, I didn’t get a vote (which is probably lucky for everybody), but I am not going to stand on ceremony, or some hokey journalist’s creed, to remain objective. Even though Narendra Modi seemed the most likely to solve the problem of overpopulation that I complain about so much, I was pulling for Mayawati, or Laloo to somehow become PM. I usually root for the underdog when I don’t have a stake in a fight. But my real reasons were selfish: I might be forced to interview the winner.

I know that if my wish ever came true, I’d have to put up with an awful lot of stuff about India’s Obama, an endless rehash of every sting, scam and fiasco of the past two decades, and another interminable debate on reservations—all more boring than back-to-back episodes of The Big Fight. But there would be compensations. Laloo and Mayawati are terribly funny.

Everybody understands that about Laloo. He is like the class clown who constantly failed his exams. But like every trickster, and every class clown, he still manages to prove himself cleverer than everybody else. Mayawati’s jokes are deadpan—erecting dozens of statues of herself, making Brahmins part of her low-caste constituency, and holding an enormous birthday party financed by, she says, the gifts she has received from her many followers. But when you think of all the cant we get from the rest of the crop, you start to see that Mayawati’s straight-faced spoofs are even funnier than Laloo’s smirking ones.

So, if Laloo or Mayawati ever took the PM’s chair, it would matter. The old hobby horses of political debate—corruption, development, reservation—would be turned inside out. And those who have been taking turns at the top would have to do more than wait a few years for their turn to come around. They might have to change. In short, India would get a good shake!


(Jason Overdorf, a regular contributor to Newsweek, is an American journalist who lives in Delhi.)

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