The buzz around the
general elections in India is truly electrifying. Rallies of national leaders of political parties hitting out at their opponents, the elaborate security cover, villagers filling up large grounds after arriving by the truckloads: the pervasive drama that marks this five-year power show is not easy to string together as a single event.
Yet, there is not much new in the rallies of big political leaders. There is much hubbub around security, chaos around getting SPG cleared passes, diktats on arrivals two hours ahead of the scheduled time of the leader (who would make a heroic appearance after hours of delay), restrictions on movement and to cap it all, the speeches are banal, even parrot-like. The rising mercury adds to the fatigue of this routine.
These rallies ride on a few catchwords. The BJP camp has
Naamdar, Chowkidar, surgical strike, Pulwama, Hindu, Pakistan and so on, amid references to local issues. Congress leaders harp on 'Chowkidar chor hai', Rafale, Anil Ambani etc.
I am not risking a judgment on the effectiveness of these speeches but as a reporter who has traversed several states, the cacophony builds fatigue.
If you have to enjoy Indian elections, you have to go beyond these big faces and show of power. The actual vibrancy of the elections lies in covering local rallies, road shows and public meetings of local leaders.
For one, these rallies are as vibrant as they are colourful. The art and set designs are steeped in the local flavour.
I attended a rally at a village in West Bengal’s Bardhaman district. The place was filled with balloons of all hues — like a birthday party — outnumbering flags or banners. The ground was surrounded by scores of small stalls and packed with trollies selling street food, toys and daily goods.
No, the rally wasn’t held next to a weekly market of the village. The market had sprung up for the rally.
Unlike the rallies of national leaders, the crowds at the smaller ones are not herded into trucks or buses. They come on their own, with several arriving on foot. These rallies happen in their backyard. Yes, party workers must have mobilised them for the event, but the whole affair seems genuine. People are not coerced into a political allegiance.
Some of these local rallies may take bizarre turns. In one such gathering for an actor-turned-politician, the crowd swelled to catch a glimpse of the celebrity. They crowded the stage to click selfies.
The speeches are interesting and witty. They are local, based mainly on panchayat politics. There are references to national decisions and the election rhetoric like Rafale or surgical strikes but these are minimal.
Appealing to the voter is getting more innovative. A mayor of a city campaigning along with an actor-turned-politician was nearly mobbed. He decided it was time to capitalise on the unexpected attention.
He blurted, brazenly with a low-brow narrative: "Humari candidate kitni sundar hai, inko banane mein bhagwan ko bahut time laga hoga. Kam se kam 5-6 ghante. Ab aap itni sundar candidate ko vote doge ya fir doosre ko jise Bhagwan ne hadbadi mein banaya hai?" (Our candidate is so pretty. God has taken at least 5-6 hours to make him or her. See the opponent — he was made in haste. So obviously you will vote for the pretty candidate.)
In another constituency in the heart of West Bengal, some villagers were irked by the incumbent MP on a roadshow. He had skipped a by-lane and the villagers would have none of it. The candidate, visibly livid because his speaker system had broken down just then, screamed that it was not a panchayat election that each by-lane had to be covered. But the people and party worker continued to protest, feeling betrayed. It took over an hour for the candidate to placate the crowd and leave that village.
In Assam’s Barak Valley, I was covering the campaign of a politician who has re-invented roadshows into ‘padyatras.’ His roadshows were massive crowd pullers as he walks for kilometers and sometimes even breaks into a dance when the party campaign song is played.
But that day just as he started his evening yatra amid sloganeering of hundreds of part workers, there was an electricity snafu. The crowd, now in pitch darkness, was silent for over a minute. Party workers scrambled to figure out what went wrong. Suddenly, the light was back along with a song blaring. People, mostly drunk, started shouting and jumping instantly. These scenes continued for another 30 minutes as the electricity remained patchy.
Adding to the colour are the jingles created in local languages containing hyper-local stories. Auto-rickshaws are the preferred campaign vehicles, entering narrow bylanes, blaring shrill songs and a running commentary by a party worker. The audio quality is poor, but they are an integral part of the election campaign in rural areas. Children form a dancing troupe behind the vehicle.I can’t wait for the next part of my election travel to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Here is to many more 'desi' stories.