This election has seen a bewildering breakdown of institutions that were trusted as the last safeguards against unconstitutional high-handedness by ruling parties. The mighty Election Commission of T N Seshan and James Lyngdoh has become spineless, with complaints against the country’s two most powerful men having disappeared from its website, and a clean chit to a particularly divisive speech by the prime minister. Even the Supreme Court has sent out baffling signals on simple issues. Does anyone need to examine the contents of a biopic on the country’s PM before deciding whether it can be released in the midst of a Lok Sabha election campaign revolving around him?
Amid this gloom, and amid the daily hate-filled utterances of ruling party candidates, comes news of an EC official searching the PM’s helicopter. That any officer could dare do something like that in times when Narendra Modi himself accuses those against him of being anti-India, is amazing. When the official is one Mohammed Mohsin, the news becomes much more than a Page One headline.
At one stroke, a major theme of this election gets punctured. “The silent fearful Muslim voter” has been the subject of endless discussions in the English press. As always, the English press has assumed that there is just one kind of “Muslim voter”, be it in the lynching fields and highways of the North or the relatively peaceful South. Or in West Bengal and Maharashtra, where, in some constituencies, the Muslim vote is not only an important factor but a very visible and loud one in the poll campaign.
By his one act—if indeed he did order the search of the PM’s helicopter as first reported, an act that has been upheld by the Central Administrative Tribunal—the Bihar-born and educated, Karnataka cadre IAS officer has reversed the image of the “Indian Muslim” that has of late gained currency even in the international media. Whether his act is finally cleared as falling within the EC’s rules or not, here’s a Muslim, who, far from appearing to be a member of a targeted minority, appears to be untouched by any feelings of victimhood. Then again, here’s a Muslim rooted in both the North and the South. At one go, Mohsin breaks so many stereotypes.
But he’s not the only one. Other ordinary citizens I have been fortunate enough to meet in the run-up to this election have proved that they are thinking beings, not mindless receptors of propaganda as portrayed by ruling party spokespersons. In a recent interview, the BJP’s Ram Madhav propounded that all through the day, from the time s/he gets up, the voter is reminded of Narendra Modi: when s/he goes to the toilet or the bank; when s/he drinks tea or lights the gas.
Not one of the persons met by this writer during the last two months, be it in Mumbai or the villages of Maharashtra, mentioned either toilets or gas. When asked specific questions about these, they pointed to incomplete or locked toilets, left so for lack of funds or water. The gas range was cleaned every day, but not used, for the cost of a cylinder would eat into the essential daily expense on the most precious commodity this season: water. Indeed, the lack of water was on everyone’s lips—except the candidates’!
As for banks, there were few kind words for an institution seen in the rural areas as at best inefficient and at worst heartless. Even more than two years later, few ordinary citizens, in villages and cities, have forgotten the callousness with which banks treated them during demonetisation.
This election, perhaps more than others, is being fought on a heightened sense of identity. But a surprising number of voters I met resisted being part of this—and they were not part of the elite. Indeed, these ordinary individuals belonged to groups that have been viciously targeted for their caste or religious identity in the last five years. Yet, from ordinary rickshaw-drivers to burqa-clad social workers in slums, from residents of caste ghettos to spokesmen of groups built on caste identity alone—these citizens expressed revulsion at having been reduced to faceless vote banks.
Not just faceless, but brainless too. Be it Modi, Mayawati or Prakash Ambedkar, almost every party chief has asked voters to forget the candidate, and vote for the “Leader”. But voters are finding that the leader’s candidates are not whom they want. In fact, some of these worthies have till yesterday stood for values completely opposed to those propagated by the Leader. Should these voters exercise their intelligence, or become part of a vote bank? They wonder when there will be an election when the former choice can be exercised, when jobs and healthcare become election issues.
Another aspect of this election makes one hopeful. In many states, farmers admit to having suffered the most in the last five years under an urban-based ruling party at the Centre, but are willing to give it one more chance. Whatever the reasons for it, their decision shows the deep faith they have in electoral democracy, with its inbuilt checks on ruling parties. Many of us view this election as vital for the survival of our democracy and the constitutional guarantees of equal citizenship to all. Are we ignoring the sturdy roots that the fundamental right to vote out a government has taken among ordinary Indians?
Freelance journalist based in Mumbai