General Elections 2024 | When campaign trails were carnivals

Seasoned journalists look back at a pre-tech era when charismatic leaders and festival-like canvassing won votes 

April 19, 2024 11:15 am | Updated April 21, 2024 12:04 pm IST

People waiting to hear Jayalalithaa in Madurai

People waiting to hear Jayalalithaa in Madurai | Photo Credit: K. Gajendran

Since 1952, India has had 17 general elections. The 18th is underway — unfolding in seven phases. Over the years, the country has seen days of coalition politics and of absolute majority. Through it all, the election campaign has been a great unifier. Loud, colourful, and playing to the masses, politicians use every tool at their disposal to win over voters.

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In the early 1980s, I remember N.T. Rama Rao, the founder of Telugu Desam Party, shifting his image from that of a matinee idol to a politician. He was one of the first to customise a van — his old Chevrolet, which he named Chaitanya Ratham — to canvass. A far cry from the vanity vehicles that today’s politicians use (think Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Mohabbat ki Dukaan’ Volvo bus with its hydraulic lift), it was still a star attraction. Youngsters would throng the van, as there was talk that it was customised to include the amenities of a single-room apartment.

N.T. Rama Rao campaigning for his Chaitanya Ratham

N.T. Rama Rao campaigning for his Chaitanya Ratham | Photo Credit: S. Kothandaraman

NTR would stop beside a village pond or tube well to have his bath. Rural folks who idolised him as Lord Rama and Krishna — the roles he played on the big screen — would prostrate before him, and perform ‘arathi’. He would oblige them and hand out dry fruits as prasadam. Then he would park his van in the village square for the night. It is said to have logged 75,000 km.

N.T Rama Rao addressing the crowds

N.T Rama Rao addressing the crowds | Photo Credit: S. Kothandaraman

Things changed, however, in the late ’90s. The Election Commission of India’s new regulations coming into effect post T.N. Seshan, in 1996, meant that the carnival atmosphere slowly began seeping out of campaigns. Today, the Great Indian Democratic Festival is much more sanitised. The action has moved to social media, with every politician and party hiring agencies to run their campaigns. The emphasis is also on road shows, with huge crowds, large convoys, and high decibel music.

Senior journalists look back at a pre-tech era when charismatic leaders, great oratory skills, and a personal touch won over voters.

Fun after 8 p.m.

A.S. Panneerselvan, former Readers’ Editor of The Hindu, recalls elections being like carnivals. “When we covered elections as young journalists, the fun would start after 8 p.m. Now, campaigns have to end at 10 p.m. Those were the days when political parties would hold musical concerts and stage plays,” he says, remembering how plays such as Parasakhti, by Tamil scholar Pavalar Balasundaram, had a strong social message (on the abuse of religion and the State’s apathy), during the 1952 elections. “I have seen plays by M.G. Ramachandran and Karunanidhi. They were creative and high-voltage, written for the campaign, and had a direct impact on voters. All that is gone now.” In the tussle between accountability and restrictions, tools such as poetry, song and musical nights have faded into oblivion.

Wall graffiti in Chennai

Wall graffiti in Chennai | Photo Credit: K. Pichumani

Race for pink lips
Elections today are a far cry from what they used to be, says B. Kolappan. The Hindu’s senior deputy editor, who has been covering elections for close to three decades, remembers a time when wall writing — reserving boundary walls to use as canvases for slogans and graffiti — was an art, and elections were like festivals. “The silence of villages would be shattered by megaphones atop Ambassador cars, announcing: ‘Periyorkalae thaimarkale, ungal ponnana vaakukalai enkalukku tharungal [Elders and mothers, poll your golden votes for us]’. No matter the political party, they would all start their campaign with the same words,” he reminisces. “As children in the early ’80s, we would chase after the slow-moving cars, equipped with a generator in the boot, raising dust in the streets of our village, Parakkai. The campaigner would punctuate his speech with snatches of film songs. The AIADMK would play songs from MGR’s movies, the Congress from Sivaji Ganesan’s; and the DMK from a specially-recorded collection in the voice of Nagore E.M. Hanifa.” But the children, he says, were more interested in collecting the pamphlets. “They were printed on cheap paper in various colours; pink was our favourite. We would chew on them to stain our mouths pink. It was free lipstick! Then we would poke our tongues out to see the colour, and wait for the next car.”

Orators and electrifying speeches

Senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, who has been covering the elections since 1989, recalls a greater sense of public involvement back in the day. “We would see a lot of posters, hoardings and pamphlets being distributed. The entire country used to wear a festive look,” he says. “Once I followed George Fernandes on his campaign trail. He wooed voters with his simplicity. Wearing the traditional kurta-pyjama, he would sit with them, have tea and deliberate on local issues.”

Rajdeep Sardesai

Rajdeep Sardesai | Photo Credit: R. Ragu

Then there were leaders who had the ability to connect with the masses at large public meetings. Bal Thackeray and Atal Bihari Vajpayee always stood out, he says. “In one election, sometime in the mid-90s, I was covering a Shiv Sena rally at Shivaji Park in Mumbai. The moment Thackeray came on stage the atmosphere became electrifying. He mesmerised the crowd with his oratory skills and witty punchlines. Atal ji was the same.”

Larger-than-life personalities

Journalist Monideepa Banerjie recalls witnessing the draw of a personality when she covered Jayalalithaa in 1989. The actor-turned-politician was seeking election from Bodinayakanur, in Tamil Nadu’s Theni district. “People from the neighbouring villages would rush to get a glimpse of her. In those days, the crowds used to be smaller and the meetings simpler. There was a sense of intimacy between the leader and the people,” she says. “Now, meetings are larger and more sanitised.”

Jayalalithaa with mentor M. G. Ramachandran

Jayalalithaa with mentor M. G. Ramachandran | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

West Bengal’s graffiti walls
In West Bengal, journalist Snehashis Sur fondly remembers the days of ‘dewal dhokal’ (taking possession of the wall). Before 1990, when restrictions were few, political parties would block walls in advance — to be used as canvases for graffiti. Fights would break out via paint: with parties countering each other using punchy slogans, poems and drawings. “The young and old would walk by these walls, appreciate them, and talk about them at home,” says Sur, who has covered over three decades of elections in West Bengal. Now, these have reduced considerably.
Wall graffiti in south Kolkata

Wall graffiti in south Kolkata | Photo Credit: ANI

(Clockwise from top left) Journalists Monideepa Banerjie, Neerja Chowdhury, Snehashis Sur, and A.S. Panneerselvan

(Clockwise from top left) Journalists Monideepa Banerjie, Neerja Chowdhury, Snehashis Sur, and A.S. Panneerselvan

When voters stated their intent

Once upon a time, the response to a campaign was often a good indicator of the election trend. During her 1977 general election coverage, Neerja Chowdhury recalls, “The people in Delhi were silent. There were murmurs of ‘Let the election come and we will teach Ms. Indira Gandhi a lesson’.”

A meeting in western Uttar Pradesh comes to mind. “Actor Dilip Kumar had come to campaign for her. The moment his speech was over, and Ms. Gandhi came out to speak, we saw the crowd leaving. It was a clear indicator; even she sensed it,” Chowdhury says. This is not the case today, with orchestrated crowds. The spontaneity is missing.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on her padyatra in 1976

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on her padyatra in 1976 | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Another memory of strong crowd reactions is from V.P. Singh’s campaign. “In 1989, Singh had come out of Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government, which had 414 seats in the Lok Sabha. He took on its might by assimilating all the non-Congress parties to forge the National Front. People across Bihar and U.P. would stand on the road, even in the dead of the night, with lamps to get a glimpse of him. They wanted change and it was evident in the election air.”

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