It was a relentless campaign that began much before the two months of nationwide touring and speeches and road shows and the polling that lasted another couple of months. After all this, when the votes were counted and the result announced in just one day, it was like producing a rabbit out of the hat. That all this process went off more or less without violence and accusations of malpractices and heavy handedness go to the credit of Election Commission that had gone about the business quietly. This seems to have been the one institution that had not been looked upon with suspicion, despite the noises that TN Seshan made during his tenure. All the other ECs had gone about their work with quiet efficiency. This is in contrast with the election aftermaths in Indonesia and Turkey and the ongoing drama about Donald Trump’s own electoral victory two years ago.
This has also been one election that had been thoroughly analysed, every issue thrashed out threadbare and those at the helm subjected to the harshest of scrutiny. This was also the one election where polarization had been intense, the divides markedly pronounced, the urban-rural divide, the yawning elite-rustic and the secular-obscurantist chasms. This election campaign had also brought to the fore the vastness of the country and its diverse nature and, for a moment one felt, how naive must be the leaders who had embarked upon to take on the problems it faces and tackle these.
In the build-up to the elections, almost every institution had been subjected to intense scrutiny and none had emerged unscathed. The judiciary, the investigating agencies, even the electronic voting machines (EVMs), the very pronouncements of the government, had been attacked, and mocked at and laughed out of court. Even the GDP figures were questioned by a group of 104 Indian economists working in the US. Never had the government been viewed with such skepticism as this time.
All the new media of communication were fully utilised for the purpose, just as the ruling party had effectively used it in its ascent to power and later to broadcast its achievements. This had been the most intense media driven, video-assisted referral (VAR) campaign and it had been a double-edged weapon as well.
All this has come at a cost and the serious problems the country faces and how to handle these have been totally forgotten or deliberately brushed aside in the process. The agrarian crisis has been with us for some time now, and the rural distress has never been even considered. Along with it the urban decay and the problems this has created, crime, social tensions, and general degeneration of values.
Unemployment among the educated youngsters has never been so high and this is a demographic dividend that is going to explode in the face. None of these had figured as election issues or had found a place in the finely crafted manifestos of most parties. There is also the looming threat of drought and the pollution of almost all the rivers, in a country where every river has been considered sacred. Like the US President Donald Trump, the political leaders here also perhaps do not consider climate change as an issue but just as a figment of the imagination of bleeding hearts.
Thus, instead of the election being taken as a time for stock taking or examining the report card at the end of the term, the campaign has been mostly dominated by trivial issues and it is no wonder that ageing film stars and mavericks had set the trend and provided the catch phrases. The use of slogans did not begin with the ‘garibi hatao’ or the ‘jai kisan, jai jawan’, and the ‘foreign hand’, even Nehru was adept at it with his ‘tryst with destiny’ and ‘unity in diversity’ phrases that were imaginative and had a touch of the Eton playing fields. Going back we had the ‘quit India’ call of 1942 by Gandhiji. But as with many other things this has been an election with an overlay of slogans and it is no wonder this swung from the banal to the ridiculous and mendacious at times.
If one were to compute the costs and energy and talent that had been spent for the conduct of the elections it must have been one of the costliest in history. Apart from the expertise that had been put to its use, the logistics, even the costumes this must have been one of the greatest spectacles of our times, comparable with the recently concluded Kumbh Mela or the IPL cricket tamasha. Former Defence Minister Krishna Menon once quipped that India is not a poor country but a rich country of poor people. That clever remark hides a profound truth.
Speaking at a Gandhiji anniversary lecture recently, sociologist Shiv Viswanathan remarked that this has been the century of genocides of all sorts, starting from the Bengal famine to the Partition. Apart from the human cost the decimation of the flora and fauna and also of the hundreds of languages that did not have a script, the seed and cattle varieties, this has been a century of much destruction. In the dazzle of progress and the advance of scientific knowledge and its application such a diverse country had been run to seed. Prof. Yash Pal, pioneering educationist, wondered what kind of education can we offer to a five-year-old tribal child who can identify fifty different species of trees and flowers and had tasted an equal variety of fruits.
Despite all the acrimony the newly elected dispensation is not fundamentally different from the earlier ones, as they are all so smitten by the signs of progress and the rapacity of the colonial powers which had bled the country and imposed their value systems on the helpless people. The carrots of the bullet trains and smart cities and digital wonders that are being dangled are as hollow or of short-term utility that they would leave behind a detritus that would be even more damaging than the benefits they would bring about. Gandhiji sensed it tangentially and had evolved a blueprint, however nebulous, that his disciples could not understand or scoffed at and in a hurry abandoned it even before his martyrdom. Had he lived longer he would have been made a laughing stock by his own disciples.
The pervasive reach of the media has a major role in this slide from the serious to the banal. According to Ted Kobbel, US media pioneer, “Many news organisations forget their real mission, which is not just reporting the news but putting it into the most accurate context possible. We have global coverage at the speed of light, twenty-four-seven. But is that progress?”
He continues, “Unfortunately, the journalism side of the business has not matched the technological advances. Satellite technology is a remarkable tool but not a mandate.” Television was once described as the devil (iblis) that would invade every drawing room and drive the viewers mad with its relentless onslaught. Koppel says, ‘‘TV news today bombards viewers with so much stuff that it has created confusion between what has just happened and what is important. At the same time, as news has pursued profits, the 18-49 demographic becomes the ‘Holy Grail’. Instead of telling people what is important, it becomes tailored to the tastes of the viewers. When we take news more lightly, they (viewers) start taking us lightly.”