Riding the popularity wave

It was 1984 and elections among students were being held in my school in Patna. The student council did not have any powers that it could use to make things better for students. The elections were held just for the sake of them, to bring the experience of elections to students. Since there was no issue on which elections could be fought, they were basically exercises that proved the popularity of certain students and those in their close circle. In the fray for the post of general secretary was a classmate, Sanjay Singh. There was a tradition of contestants giving a speech in the morning assembly for students on the last day of canvassing. Voting was held after a gap of a day. Till the morning of the speeches, Sanjay Singh seemed to have already lost the elections. And then he gave a speech that changed the entire scenario in his favour.

My school had been an English medium school for long but for a few years before the elections, a section of Hindi medium students had been introduced for all the classes. These students felt marginalised and overwhelmed in the largely English medium environment of the school. All the contestants in the 1984 elections gave their speeches in English to appeal to the majority of students in English medium sections. Sanjay Singh delivered a master stroke in his speech—his two-minute speech was bilingual, the first minute in Hindi and the second in English. And in his Hindi speech, he used a typically Bihari version of a Hindi word to woo Hindi medium voters. He said,
‘Mere paas samay bahut kamti hai, lekin isi kamti samay mein hamko kuchh karna hai.’
(I have very little time, but I have to do something is this little time.)

The formal Hindi word for ‘little’ is ‘kam’. ‘Kamti’ is the rural or Bihari version of the word. Sanjay Singh’s speech was a hit all around but the Hindi sections really lapped it up. A wave rose among Hindi medium students and their friends in the English medium sections that they had to make ‘kamti’ win. From nowhere, Sanjay Singh became centre stage in the election. He lost by just one vote. It was on an emotive wave that Sanjay Singh came so close to victory.

There was no way Sanjay Singh, his Hindi speech or the use of the word ‘kamti’ could have made life better for the Hindi medium students or other students in the school. Sanjay Singh was not very good in studies or any extra-curricular activities. He had never brought any laurels for the school or done anything to make students feel proud of him. He had no emotional weakness for Hindi or the Hindi section students. But he knew how elections are fought and won. He knew how to create an electoral wave in his favour. Or maybe, it was just chance that his ploy had worked. But as he himself bragged later, his Hindi speech was nothing more than a device to swing votes.

Sanjay Singh and his electoral politics are highly representative of democracy in India. The intention behind holding elections is to choose a person who can best serve his constituency. The better a person is as a servant of the people, the better his chances should be to win an election. But the paramount issue in an election, service to the people, has become a non-issue in India. The fray is full of Sanjay Singhs who can swing votes by creating waves and blocks of supporters out of non-issues. Exceptions are there, but the rule is that candidates are not symbols of service but of caste, religion, region and other undemocratic issues that do not gauge the kind of public servant a candidate will be.

These undemocratic issues should have weakened their hold on the electoral psyche of the people over the years. But the leaders of people have continually stoked them, and with each election, their hold on people and elections has become greater. The divisive nature of these issues has been tapped to create schisms in society and carve vote banks. And people have allowed these issues to control their decisions in not just politics, but other segments of life, such as social or economic.

Of course, for the sake of record, it can be said that India is a republic where free and fair elections are held. But that would just be the letter part of the Indian republic. In spirit, there are gross violations of the republican ethos. People are content with having established a republic in India in letter. But real adherence to a tenet or norm can only happen if it is followed in spirit. The Sanjay Singhs hijacking the Indian republic are clever. They know that they have very little chance of being hauled up legally if they follow the letter defining the Indian republic but play with its spirit to win elections. The representatives of the people are not their servant but their lord. And people are being used by their leaders to stage the democratic charade of the Indian republic.

The author is a senior journalist and columnist
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