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Elections: Victory of hope over common sense

April 07, 2014 14:42 IST

The level of political discourse in the country is generally low, but it touches a nadir during election time. You will hear downright lies, half truths, breathtaking exaggerations, and extravagant promises, but never the truth, says Sherna Gandhy.

Since for the media there is nothing happening in this country except elections over the next two months, we the public, have no choice but to listen to the voice of the various politicians in the fray.

What these hours of listening or reading have shown us is that the one thing every candidate needs, apart from a lusty pair of lungs, is a good speechwriter.

The love of long and lengthy speeches is built into the DNA of the politician, aspiring or veteran. Thanks to the good old system of renting crowds, they have a captive audience willing to while away a few hours sitting in the hot sun.

I doubt any one of the large number of people who hear the speeches live or over the telly, or read it in the papers are swayed by what the candidates say because for the most part they talk utter rubbish.

So long as the candidate bellows, waves his hands around, points a finger threateningly and uses unparliamentary language against his or her opponent, the listeners are happy. They have got the entertainment they came for (apart from whatever bribe was offered).

Smarmy news anchors are also happy because the bombast gives them material for that evening's 'debate' (otherwise known as the Tower of Babel).

And the television viewing or newspaper reading public is ecstatic because it doesn't have to tax its brain too much, since this part of its anatomy is so little used of late that it is in a state of permanent decline.

The level of political discourse in the country is generally low, but it touches a nadir during election time.

You will hear downright lies, half truths, breathtaking exaggerations, and extravagant promises, but never the truth.

Since no one expects or demands anything better, we are doomed every five years to hear the most astonishing bakwas ('A K Antony and Arvind Kejriwal are agents of Pakistan and enemies of India'), poor jokes ('For the Congress, all 365 days of the year are April Fools' Day'), puerile insults ('Any Irani or Pakistani will not make any difference in the constituency') and what the courts call 'non-application of mind' ('Everyone should vote twice, just rub off the ink mark'), emanating from the men and women who will rule our destinies.

It's not like there are no issues for the speechmakers. But because we, the electorate, do not demand that candidates tackle these issues and spell out their stand on them, they get away with this combination of infantile promises and abuse of opponents.

So, though an election may bring a change of party, it brings no other change. No matter who wins, we just get more of the same.

So, maybe, in retrospect, we don't need a good speechwriter of the calibre of Theodore Sorenson, John F Kennedy's legendary speechwriter.

Because (a) there's no John Kennedy in the running, and (b) Sorenson's most famous line, in the JFK inaugural address: 'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country' really doesn't resonate in our country, where we are all hell-bent on grabbing everything for ourselves.

***

The lack of disgust among the general public with the conduct of candidates is clearly seen in how few people are thinking of using the NOTA (none of the above) option.

The opportunism displayed by a majority of candidates, their utter lack of any ideological commitment, and the paucity of ideas, are clearly on display.

Andhra Pradesh MPs and MLAs are playing a most energetic game of musical chairs, flitting from one party to another simply because they are promised a ticket or some other goodies.

Since the state is to be divided soon, the rump state of Andhra is angry at any party that supported the breakaway of Telangana. The Congress was the main facilitator in that process, so the defections from the Congress to parties that were once sworn enemies, is like a deluge.

In Telangana, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, which is being seen as a front runner since it fought determinedly for the new state, is welcoming all and sundry into its fold, and all and sundry are happy to flock to it because of the opportunities they will get to further their careers and line their nests.

All across the country right now, parties are tying up alliances and candidates are crossing and re-crossing party lines, impelled by nothing but self interest.

No one is critical of this kind of thinking. It is considered part and parcel of politics. But it is only in an immature democracy like India that defections on such a colossal scale can meet with such little criticism.

In fact, political pundits will say approvingly that this is the age of coalition government, as if that is something to be proud of. In fact, it merely means a patchwork of parties that are happy to be stitched together so that they can enjoy the loaves and fishes of office.

Fielding film stars as candidates is another gimmick that is uncritically accepted. The film star most likely can't tell the Lok Sabha from the Vidhan Sabha, but he or she gets an image boost that, especially for ageing (but still remarkably well preserved) dancing-singing queens, is very gratifying.

What the star-struck voter gets out of it is a big zero, but same would be the case with any other candidate and at least this one is a piece of eye-candy.

***

An Indian election is truly the triumph of hope over common sense.

The Indian voter -- urban and well-educated or rural and less educated -- knows very well that he or she will just get more of the same.

But, well, there's just that spark of hope that somehow things will improve.

Despite hundreds of rallies and meetings and interviews none of us really knows what -- if anything -- the candidate we vote for is committed to doing.

Most election manifestos are masterpieces of the art of saying nothing.

Most media interviews are designed to get the interviewee to say something controversial, and not to reveal what he or she is specifically committing to.

The Indian politician knows very well that s/he doesn't have to lift a finger to do anything because the voter will always vote and one among the fraternity will always be in power.

If you don't like the Maoists' theory of change -- to destroy and build anew -- then the other option should be NOTA.

I dream of an election where the overwhelming majority of Indians decide they will not be taken for a ride by the political class and will either not vote at all or will vote for none of the candidates on the ballot.

By thus precipitating a Constitutional crisis, sending out a very powerful message, and shaming the whole inadequate political class, we might get the change we want to be see.

Image: A woman at a polling booth in Assam.

Sherna Gandhy