The amazing thing about this diary is that it got written at all. How, in the midst of a gruelling electoral campaign, in the driving desert heat with temperatures ranging up to 49 degrees, dust storms blowing, a million distractions, dissidents to be kept in tow, the faithful to be rewarded, money-grubbers to be warded off, charlatans and soothsayers to be kept at bay, twenty-two wedding feasts to be digested, good sarpanches to be distinguished from bad ’uns, newspaper editors demanding moolah for ‘paid news’ or no news at all to be stared down, meeting after village meeting to be addressed, temples to be visited, dargahs to not be missed, sants, pirs and fakirs to be appeased, and miles and miles to go before you sleep—how on earth did candidate Manvendra Singh find the time, the energy, the dedication to keep a diary is what beats me. Did he really keep it, or did he fake it subsequently is the question that repeatedly came to me as I joined him on this fascinating account, honest, sincere, disarming, witty, of an election fought, and lost. Disappointment there is at the outcome, but little self-pity. Clearly, he lives to fight another day. And clearly too, he will win once more and go on to that fulfilment in public service that he so richly deserves. Most impressive of all is his determination to stick to his constituency despite the damage to his prospects through delimitation.
Perhaps I was impressed because his father, Jaswant Singh (yes, he of the accent), addressing us in 1991 as first-time MPs, solemnly intoned that each of us had to make our choice as to whether we wished to be ‘constituency MPs’ or ‘national MPs’. That’s when I decided to be both. Manvendra seems to have made the same decision, which is why he has not ended up as MP for Darjeeling!
My Tamil Nadu constituency of Mayiladuturai, which I have fought six times—thrice to win and thrice to lose, with margins racing to lakhs and plunging to a few thousand—is the diametric opposite of Manvendra’s on almost every parameter. Where his is the largest constituency in the country, set in a vast, sprawling desert that he took 34,000 km to cover in two months, mine is among the smallest rural constituencies in the country, set in the verdant Cauvery delta along the blue, blue sea, not much more than 75 km from base to tip and another 75 km along the coast, and so densely populated that villages succeed each other within minutes, leaving no time to take a breather, hot and humid, not hot and dry. So, unlike Manvendra’s campaigning that is mostly driving long distances from dhani to dhani (deciding whether or not to turn on the air-conditioning), my campaigning has to be done standing on the back of a jeep, day after killing day. Knees crumbling, exhaustion overwhelming one, sweat streaming down one’s face, one’s mouth aching with the strain of smiling and smiling and smiling, the endless din of the ‘pechalar’ (orator) proclaiming my virtues and those of whichever Dravidian party we happen to be aligned with in that election, working out in my dead fatigued head the ‘calculations and permutations’ that obsess me and Manvendra and every other candidate to foretell whether it is victory or loss.
This is an honest and witty account of a poll fought, and lost. Manvendra lives to fight, and will deservedly win.
I was intrigued that Manvendra does not attach the same weight to the body language of the passers-by that I do to gauge my prospects—I find the strength of their smiles and what Manvendra regards as the ‘un-Indian’ act of waving and being waved back to as a clearer indication of the Fate that awaits one than the armada of supporters assuring one that all will be well (provided the candidate supplies them with just a little more cash). But, of course, it would be impossible to sustain the physical and emotional demands of the campaign without constantly nursing the faint hope that all will turn out OK in the end. The lesson to be learned—that Manvendra is probably still learning—is that whatever you do for your constituents, none of it counts when it comes to the polling booth. We are all just leaves in the wind—if the wind rises, we rise; when it falls, we fall. That is why more successful politicians than Manvendra and I will never return to their constituencies and change seats as often as opportunism demands.
The one tip I have to offer Manvendra is to name his wife as his treasurer, as I do. I refer all money demands to her and since she knows little Tamil, her standard reply is ‘Panam illai, Kaiyukku vote podunga’ (No money, vote for the Hand). That is what has saved us from bankruptcy over a quarter century of electoral politics.
The other thing I can’t quite make out is what Manvendra is doing in the BJP. A man of such eclectic generosity of heart, with so catholic a frame of mind, so sensitive to the rich diversity of his country and, more so, his desert constituency, so lacking in any religious prejudice, so encompassing in his affections—how does he reconcile his patent secularism with the assumptions and objectives of Hindutva? Perhaps the saddest passage in his diary is this: ‘Shafi expressed his anxiety about the Muslim vote. He recounted what he had heard as having been said by Amin Khan and Ali Mohammed, among others—that there was no chance of any Muslim vote going to the BJP’ (p.156).
And that is why I think Manvendra is the best Congressman we never had.