Indian elections are like festivals – colourful, crowded, chaotic and noisy to the hilt! From the word ‘go’, it is like a party that starts early and ends only when the cows come home. Whitewash is lavishly used on every vacant wall, with or without permission, and lurid party symbols are thrown on by street artists who earn their livelihood by painting leaves, brooms, cycles and probably bullock carts. Within the riot of colours, one might discern faintly familiar faces of political candidates, hands folded, looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. Every bit of wall works as propaganda and the common man is oft drawn into a maze akin to the mythological Chakravyuh, where he gets in and has no idea how to get out.
We Indians have a high tolerance for noise. Elections are solid proof of this. The decibel levels go up with every day of campaigning, and the last two days are the noisiest, as party followers faithfully ply vehicles across towns and villages, using loudspeakers to make their voices heard. They shout slogans, scream out accolades that describe political demi-gods, sing raucous songs and generally raise a hullaballoo that could well wake the dead.
They definitely succeed in waking the living. On the afternoon when I try to grab a siesta for half an hour, just as my eyelids close, there rises a shrieking just outside our window which faces the main road, and I jerk awake, my heart in my mouth. What is that caterwauling? And then all is clear; it is electioneering at its best (or its worst!) calculated to give folks a cardiac arrest, instead of garnering their votes. On one occasion, once I was jerked awake, the ‘singing continued’ and unfortunately, ‘the music in my heart I bore/long after it was heard no more.” A thousand apologies to William Wordsworth!
What is an election minus its candidates? It is the hope of every voter that their candidate will be a tower of strength, solid enough to hold up the myriad wishes of all his supporters. Of course, the adage stands true – “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride!”
However, the distinction lies between real life and reel life – just like an aging hero who puts on his grease paint and goes onto the screen to beat up ten villains at the same time, each of whom waits obligingly on the side lines to be beaten to a pulp. At that moment, he is like God, almost immortal. Nothing can touch him. That is the beauty of illusion. However, the moment the war paint comes off, the hero turns back into an ordinary man, with all the tribulations that come along with normalcy.
Thus, the candidate looms tall, his folded hands signifying that he is willing to bow down, as promises ring in the air, filling people’s ears with saccharine-like hope. Roads will be constructed, houses strengthened, land given, crops sold, honey will flow on the land, all with a wave of a magic wand.
It is now that the candidates walk that extra mile into homes, each one blowing his or her own trumpet, like glossy advertisements that blare out their shining messages. The small print is hidden away, only to be brought out when necessary, obviously after the votes have been counted. Individuals who have played a significant role in different fields are honoured with shawls, their feet touched, and blessings sought.
I recall one candidate, a film star, who came to canvass for votes. As was customary, a variety of delicious snacks had been prepared for him. He took one look at them, and his face turned a sickly green as he shook his head in desperation. The poor man had been suffering from indigestion ever since he had eaten his first snack a few days ago. Not that that stopped his followers and all the film buffs from gobbling up everything in sight! Just goes to show that candidates have their share of miseries as well.
The pandemic has ensured that life has slowed down considerably. Gone are the days of those serpentine rallies where crowds would saunter along the roads, waving flags and chanting slogans. One would find lines of buses along the roadside from which so-called party members would hop off to join the rallies to make up the numbers. The incentive, it was rumoured, was a little lumpsum and a biryani, both of which would help foster sentiments towards the generous party.
The old nursery rhyme ‘Incy Wincy Spider’ could well be amended to “down came Covid and washed the elections out”. Masked men and women rule the roost, the sales of sanitizers, soaps and gloves have skyrocketed, along with those of bindis and kajal. Lipsticks have almost disappeared along with lips that have vanished from view.
Today, voters are wary of casting their votes. The virus has blighted their lives and shows no sign of leaving, just yet. Clear instructions need to be followed – carry your own pen, use sanitizer liberally, distance yourself from others and always keep your mask on. The older generation may not even cast their votes.
Finally, when all is said and done, politics is like a game of chess. There are pawns and king makers, all fighting to keep their leaders safe. Umpteen strikes are made as the battle rages on as opponents painstakingly inch forward. Till that one fatal moment when the king is conquered, and the fight is lost. Till the next bout of elections, when things could just seesaw in the other direction!
And as Omar Khayyam put it, so poignantly, in his Rubaiyat,
“’Tis all a Chequer-board of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.”