The day after the general elections are over, India should be hailed for successfully crossing yet another milestone on its uninterrupted democratic march ahead, unlike several former colonies as well as some newly formed nations. India deserves this accolade. The day after this lofty exercise, the winners and losers will review their strategy and try to find where they went right and where wrong. That is but natural.
But the day after the event we the people should wonder if the nation’s social, moral and intellectual visage had not turned paler by one more shade. If, barring the first time, each of the 15 general elections had not been marked by this syndrome. I was in my late teens when the first general elections based on adult franchise were executed spread over four months, from 25 October 1951 to 21 February 1952. I bicycled down and around my small town and pedalled into the neighbouring villages and bazaars to observe the people’s reaction to it.
Several rural voters, 85 per cent of them then illiterate, felt stumped at some familiar faces proposing to operate as formidable a contraption as the “Sarkar”, so long run from beyond the seven seas. However, many saw a reflection of that enigmatic capacity in Nehru and, more informed ones, in Sardar Patel. Most of the candidates had been freedom fighters, their credentials well known. The problem of choice hardly existed. Religion, caste and community played a negligible role. The provision of emoluments for an MP or MLA was ideally little and the candidates spent little in campaigns.
Though there were 53 parties on the arena, contestants in any constituency were few and each one had a ballot box with his/her name and symbol boldly visible on it. No wonder that some good-natured voters cut their ballot paper into equal pieces and dropped them into all the boxes.
Change became glaring by the second general elections in 1957—a process of change that has since continued unchecked. At first playing their disruptive role in a subdued manner—corrupt use of money, communalism, casteism, threat, blackmail, exaggerations, lies, and character-assassination—by and by, they became unabashed elements of propaganda. Way back in the first decade of the 20th century, Mark Twain said, “If we would learn what the human race really is at bottom, we need only observe it at election times.” (Twain’s Autobiography edited by A B Paine). How true it is today!
First and foremost among the lasting mischiefs each pre-election period made was the damage to the atmosphere in the campus. Each major party had a students’ wing, but in the fifties of the last century they did not openly proclaim their affiliation, for all the leaders were against dragging students into active politics. But by the sixties there were no qualms in that regard. Even that could be partly justified. But what is shameful is the impact the elections left on the culture of the student community.
Here is an extract from a major newspaper, omitting the name of the prominent university concerned: “Candidates for the University Students’ Union may be parroting the expected lines at the hustling, but on ground there is just mascara…Lots of it as the ideal hamara neta aisa ho look to woo student voters is all about looking zany.
That is where the Prem Studio in Kamala Market comes in. A veteran in the business of giving the aspirants that dream look since 1978, this time the only brief had been, says Umesh Sabharwal, managing director of the studio, ‘glamour, glamour and more glamour’.”
This author happened to travel across a rural chunk of the country during the first fortnight of January this year. The repeated complaints he heard from several village elders was about the proliferation of liquor shops where till the other day the stuff was synonymous with sin and scandal.
According to the global status report on alcohol and health, 2018, just released by WHO, alcohol consumption by Indians had increased more than twofold between 2005 and 2016. Social workers say that the new recruits to the habit are mostly villagers; the younger lot is rivalled by middle-aged ones and the phenomenon is closely linked to the elections—a time when politicos or their agents use it as a bribe and prevent administrative interference in growth of its illegal outlets.
The irresponsible and abusive vocabulary of leading political figures probably satisfy their followers, but they fail to realise that it lowers the image of politicians as a tribe and like inflation decreasing the worth of money, their hyperboles diminish the value of words. That is a blow to the sanctity of language and literature.
Even though we the chivalrous Indians could elect a ‘bandit queen’ to our Lok Sabha, a man proved to be criminally corrupt or blatantly criminal was shunned. Not so any longer. We have adapted ourselves to them, in the process blunting our sensibility.
During the earliest experiment in democracy in Rome over 2,000 years ago, there was nothing bizarre in the candidate galloping through the city throwing gifts at their patrician voters. The practice seems to have lately returned in the form of promising doles and even cash. The day after the elections we should ask ourselves: Did politicians have an absolute right to the public purse? Did they have the vision to foresee the economic and, more importantly, the socio-psychological consequences of their weird generosity?