Eleven states and one Union territory went to the polls this week, marking the second phase of this unwieldy, gargantuan election — often called the greatest show on earth. The numbers show voter indifference for the most part so far. Clearly, there is no “wave” this time. A 68 per cent turnout isn’t bad, but it isn’t brilliant either. However, here’s the good news first: At the time of writing, nothing too terrible had taken place. In India, we are prepared for anything when we go to the polls — kidnapping, murder, looting, robbery and that quaint term known only to us — “booth-capturing”. This week’s big noise was over a controversial “sadhvi” (Pragya Thakur), known for her rabid, vicious and rabble-rousing speeches, getting a BJP ticket to contest from the prestigious Bhopal seat. The fact that she is an accused in the Malegaon bomb blast case (2008), in which six people were killed and 11 injured, has clearly not made any difference to her candidature. The brazenness of this act has shocked the country, but BJP veterans sanguinely say it’s all good — after all, this RSS-endorsed firebrand has not been convicted so far. Plus, there is the twisted possibility that someone like her would actually appeal to hardliners. So… There she is, confidently striding around, dressed in saffron silk, claiming she is fighting a crusade (“dharmayudh”) against her opponent, Congress leader Digvijay Singh (he of the notorious “saffron terror” tag). She is certain of a win, she boasts, since her victory will be a win for “dharma” Ms Thakur (48), who is out on bail, may just pull off a win, which would be seen as a feather in the BJP’s cap given that the party lost the state to the Congress after 15 years of rule.
The disturbing aspect of this election is how little moral issues matter. Nobody is particularly bothered by a candidate’s criminal past, present or future. It is a done deal. A given. The predominant sentiment is one of resignation. I overheard a Congress critic exclaiming, “If Robert Vadra can turn up to campaign for his wife Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and urge voters to back her — what more is left?” Mr Vadra is under investigation on various corruption charges and is seen as a liability, even an embarrassment to the Gandhi family. In my mind, corruption charges, no matter how serious, fall into a different category. Ms Thakur is linked to a terror attack. Discharged by a court on charges under MCOCA, she is facing trial under other criminal provisions. No problem! “Let the voters decide,” say party bosses, as they go ahead and give tickets to “goons” (Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi’s description of her own party’s reinstated functionaries who had insulted her. Ms Chaturvedi has now left the party and joined the Shiv Sena).
What can we possibly tell our bewildered young voters as they line up enthusiastically to exercise their franchise for the first time? We definitely can’t fool them. Which is my point. They will accept and take for granted that our political leadership features men and women with dodgy reputations, shady pasts and dubious track records. We will be legitimising netas who have lied blatantly about nearly every aspect of their messy lives — from inventing college degrees to covering up for lynchings and murders. As of now, the two men battling one another for the top job have stopped at nothing to belittle one another. Words that have become a part of the narrative of election 2019 are “chor” and “chowkidar”. These are but the milder ones. Epithets galore have been freely traded, without even a semblance of decency. Azam Khan’s nauseating comment about Jaya Prada’s “khaki underwear” (“chuddi”) may have shocked conservative old-timers, but other younger political commentators let it pass as a part of the ugly, no-holds-barred scenario. Funny that nobody is putting candidates on the mat and asking tough questions. The Prime Minister himself is cautiously responding to questions on serious failures of his government by dodging direct replies and resorting to wordplay. Both men, Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, have totally demolished the dignity of their respective positions by indulging in below-the-belt sparring devoid of any substance. Name-calling and finger-pointing are no substitutes for actual issue-based debates. But the young are being tricked into accepting this is how it works! They don’t know better! Their knowledge of history — India’s included — is sketchy at best. I doubt they are all that interested in reading those masterful speeches made by great political stalwarts during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s urging citizens to cast their votes. All they are exposed to and know today is the pathetic exchange between political opponents who shamelessly stoop to shockingly low levels while campaigning. And yes, they know the names of movie stars in the fray — whether or not they actually vote for them once inside that booth remains to be seen.
The only inspiring images so far have involved poll officers and workers in distant places carrying EVMs and VVPATs as they climb up steep mountainous slopes, cross rivers on precarious bamboo bridges, walk through dense jungles and arid deserts — just to make sure every registered voter in the remotest part of her vast and diverse country has the opportunity to perform an important duty as citizens in a democracy — cast their votes. Like Tashigang, the polling station at 15,256 ft in Himachal Pradesh, which is being readied for 48 voters. It is these dedicated folks who deserve our respect and admiration. Such a pity there isn’t a single leader who inspires the same.