All the dust, sweat and sometimes blood is worth it if an election brings out our best.
Last week I got a distress call: “Boss, I need you to find out who is winning in ___ assembly seat in Arunachal. My friend ___ is the ___ candidate. He’s having a nervous breakdown and is sitting on a railway track.” Arunachal is facing assembly and parliamentary polls simultaneously.
I made a couple of calls and figured out that the People’s Party of Arunachal was equally attracting votes from both the Congress and BJP who are leading in the seat. It was too close to call. I advised the candidate to step back from the railway tracks and assured him that he still had several cards left to play within his party even if he lost.
Narendra Tomar, the president of the BJP’s Madhya Pradesh unit, is an impressive man with a deadpan voice that strikes fear in the hearts of those it is directed against. He’s the last person to shy away from a camera or be at a loss for words. But after weeks of campaigning, Tomar looked terrible on TV this weekend.
He could only utter a few monosyllabic answers to the reporter who closed the interview saying that the only thing certain right now is that Tomar desperately needed some sleep.
The polls are taking their toll. If rumours are to be believed, a candidate of a national party broke his mobile phone and then broke down in tears in Jharkhand. He was quoted by an aide saying, “How much longer? How much longer? Why can’t they count the votes instantly?”
If there are people more stressed than candidates, it is the campaign managers-- MLAs who handle everything from brokering with caste groups and arranging transportation at immediate notice in places where roads don’t exist.
“You can’t believe the demands people make. There is not enough money in the world to satisfy their whims and still we are not sure who will vote where. I am living on antacid,” a young MLA campaigning for a star candidate told me.
The fatigue is causing bloopers in speeches. Dow Chemicals has become Dow Jones and Rahul, Rajiv. Mixing up names of towns, districts and most importantly election observers has worse results.
It isn’t much better for journalists and blogs such as these are being written in the dead of the night, often to distract one’s self from hunger pangs due to forgetting meals and realising there’s no food at home either.
A rerun of the American TV series ‘The West Wing’ is being telecast these days. Matt Santos is running for President. He’s travelling across the continental United States like his opponent Arnold Vinick. In terms of understanding human behaviour, 'The West Wing' is the next best thing to actually covering polls.
My closest friend contesting these Lok Sabha polls is Vijay Kumar of the Communist Party of India—Marxist Leninist, who was on the ballot in Bhopal. His party doesn’t hold a single panchayat in all of Madhya Pradesh and Vijay’s contest is an attempt by his party to gauge the support they have in their bases.
In Vijay’s case, the base in Bhopal was one he almost single handedly carved out—the support of slum dwellers in a few pockets who are dissatisfied with all the major parties. And although the CPIML’s election exercise is merely an experiment, Vijay has travelled more in the last two months than I have in five years of journalism.
His party is present in ten polling booth areas in the city, but on polling day they only had enough polling agents for two. Vijay deployed them in the two slums where he estimates the maximum support to be, which includes the one he lives in. A few spare cadres were asked to hang around polling booths where he expected rigging to take place; not that the spectacle-wearing varsity supporters had the muscle power to prevent the same. Vijay himself shuffled between several booths.
As polling drew to a close in Bhopal, I went to Vijay’s home booth to check on him. I was tempted to give him electioneering tips I'd picked up from 'The West Wing'.
I asked him what he had learnt from fighting a losing battle. His face morphed into a big smile. “All this heat, hunger and fatigue was worth it. I now understand Bhopal at least a little. I also have a fair idea of who will vote for whom and why, though it’s very hard to be sure. I have enough material to write a book. But most of all, we now have the confidence to fight,” he said.
It started raining. Others instinctively ran toward shelter, but Vijay, another comrade and I kept standing there beside a statue of Rani Durgavati. The strong wind and needle-like rain drops felt nice. Perhaps democracy is more than money power or the ability to get liquor to your voters without getting caught. If the candidate that is losing has so much confidence, then we have something to teach western democracy.