Strange indeed are the ways of the Election Commission. It wanted public sector oil companies to raise the prices of petrol, diesel, cooking gas, etc on the specious ground that the Vajpayee government had prevailed on them to stay their hand till polling was over (though it did not seek an explanation from the Congress government in Delhi why it was sitting on the proposal of the power distribution companies to raise electricity tariff, or of the Delhi Jal Board, which had proposed a manifold increase in the rate for household water).
But look at the ridiculous extent it goes to, ostensibly to ensure a free and fair election. A natural pond in Nandurbar, Maharashtra, attracted the Commission's ire because for as long as human memory can recall in the more than 100-year-old pond a lotus has always bloomed at this time of the year. Since the pond is maintained by the archaeological department, the latter was ordered to cover the lotus from public view for fear that it might influence the voters, the lotus being the BJP's election symbol!
Earlier, billboards about the prime minister's Golden Quadrilateral project were ordered to be covered with cloth. That such an act only attracts greater public attention never seemed to have crossed the minds of the bosses in Nirvachan Sadan.
If you were to follow the Election Commission's logic, statues of Indira Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Jawaharlal Nehru in public places too should be ordered covered since they were closely associated with the Congress!
While the Commission seems to have plenty of time for such frivolous actions, it maintains a stiff upper lip and offers no valid explanation when it fails to do its basic duty of ensuring that no eligible voter is denied the right to exercise his franchise.
Already, in the first phase of polling alone, lakhs of names of eligible voters, including those of two young cricketers from Gujarat, Parthiv Patel and Irfan Pathan, were missing from the electoral rolls. But there has been no valid explanation for this recurring malady in election after election from the grandstanding election commissioners who lose no opportunity to play to the gallery.
A maverick agenda
It is hard not to feel sorry for Ram Jethmalani.
It was only after he had agreed to withdraw his nomination papers from the Lucknow parliamentary constituency, from where the prime minister is seeking re-election, that Atal Bihari Vajpayee issued that placatory statement calling him a 'friend of 40 years,' though everyone knows Vajpayee and Jethmalani have been mere acquaintances, that too of relatively recent vintage.
Two well-meaning intermediaries, including the aristocratic boss of a Mumbai-headquartered industrial house, had been given the requisite assurance by Jethmalani before he flew to London to look up his ailing son Janak.
The lawyer set a couple of conditions for his withdrawal from the contest. Among them reportedly was the demand that his lawyer son Mahesh Jethmalani be made a member of the Rajya Sabha soon after the constitution of the 14th Lok Sabha.
Of course, Mahesh, a brilliant lawyer in his own right, wanted no part of it. Not only did he not want to be part of any deal that impinged on his robust sense of dignity he also wanted to distance himself from the senior Jethmalani's anti-Vajpayee campaign.
But Jethmalani was determined to do his own thing, egged on by a lawyer friend from the Congress who had helped 'sell' him to party boss Sonia Gandhi and other leaders despite their strong reservations in view of his no-holds-barred attack on the party and the late Rajiv Gandhi only a few years ago.
Jethmalani can now be relied upon to resort to his familiar shoot-and-scoot tactics against Vajpayee and his foster family. There seems to be little, however, that he can do to alter the eventual outcome of the contest in Lucknow.
Abuse, not argument, prevails
This being the most televised election in the short history of free India, you can rely on political players to provide interesting insights into the workings of their minds.
Janardhan Poojary, chief of the Congress in Karnataka, addressing a press conference in Bangalore the other day, unleashed a fusillade of invective against the prime minister, little realising that it was being telecast live by a private television channel.
When he said something exceedingly vulgar against Vajpayee, the channel, widely perceived to be unfriendly to the National Democratic Alliance, perforce switched him off mid-sentence and did not return to the Poojary press conference again.
Or take the case of this discussion on another channel a few days ago. When Union Labour Minister Sahib Singh Verma, questioning Laloo Prasad Yadav's claim that his alliance would sweep Bihar in the forthcoming parliamentary poll, referred to him as plain 'Laloo' and said he was not to be taken seriously, the RJD chief was livid with rage. "Aey Sahib Singh," he shot back, "kendra ke mantri ho, bolna to seekh lo! Tumhey to shistachar bhi nahin aata. Hum tum ko sikha denge (Sahib Singh, you are a minister in the central government, you should learn to speak properly. You do not even know basic courtesies. I will teach you!)."
When the channel showed that its opinion poll had forecast a near fade-out of the RJD-led alliance in Bihar, Yadav trained his guns on it, saying, "You are all bought by the RSS-BJP. Pramod Mahajan has paid you Rs 500 crore. You can say what you will, but we will wipe out the communal forces from Bihar."
Curiously, the two anchors conducting the panel discussion did not counter Yadav during or after his wordy assault on their integrity.
Playing both sides
The Congress media cell got an interesting offer the other day.
One of its members revealed that a television entrepreneur was willing to do a deal with the party provided the amount offered was right.
Apparently, for the duration of the current campaign for the Lok Sabha election, he wanted Rs 2 crore to provide Congress-friendly news and views on his channel.
But the moment the media cell got this offer, one of its members objected. He said this worthy was unreliable, and that even as he took money from the Congress he would be pleading his case with BJP leaders.
Needless to say, the idea was quietly buried.
Little man with sharp tongue
Parthiv Patel, the pint-sized, teenage wicket-keeper of the Indian Test team, is an ebullient player, never at a loss for words when rivals indulge in an unremitting verbal assault to try and break the Indians' morale on the field.
As a member of the under-19 team a couple of years ago, he shocked his mates by repaying, with interest, the abuse showered on them by Bangladeshi and Pakistani players.
That was when he let them in on a secret. Apparently, growing up in Ahmedabad's gullies, it was commonplace for little Parthiv to come across the type of gutter language that he heard from the rival players. Therefore, he had no difficulty responding to it in kind.
But having graduated to international cricket with great panache, it seems, the quality of his verbal output on the field too has improved greatly.
In the final Test against Pakistan at Rawalpindi, when he whipped the bails off in a vain attempt to stump Shoaib Akhtar, the big fast bowler was not amused. "Oye chutku!" Akhtar warned, "zyada mat ban, uthva doonga [Hey, puny fellow, don't show off or I'll have you kidnapped]."
Now, a commonplace response would have been "Just try" or some such. But not for the young tyro such tame remarks. He further riled the angry young man by telling him with a straight face, "Haan, ab cricket mein to kuch kar nahi saka to yahi kam kar key roti kamayega [Now that you have failed to do anything of note in cricket, this is the only way you can earn a livelihood]."
After that, Akhtar, at least as long as he was at the batting crease, did not get into another verbal tangle with the Indian wicket-keeper.
Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh