– BY RAJEEV GOWDA
Over the years, I’ve learned to balance the hard rationalist in me with an appreciation for the importance of some rituals. There’s something to be said for magic, for awe, for bells and fire, for rites of transition. As long as we don’t lose the plot and become superstitious or ritualistic, we can learn to appreciate that some socio-cultural practices have evolved to enable humans to deal with events and crises through actions, interactions, chants and motions that calm and soothe or involve and inspire.
I’m thinking of all this because we’re just finishing up with another rite of passage—the elections that keep our democracy alive and legitimate. You can see the connection with rituals. The Election Commission has cracked down on the festive aspects of elections—the banners, the buntings, the public meetings and mass rallies. As we lose the colour, we also lose the way elections touch every citizen. Nowadays, people feel less a part of the democratic process, they’re not even involved as spectators to the frenzy. They just get to consume media reports, which are fundamentally remote, however urgent and vital TV would like to make it seem. And that’s a loss for democracy overall.
One of the premier rites of passage is the actual counting of votes. And today, with robotic electronic efficiency, the tallying of the ballot is over in a few hours. Without the drama of multiple rounds and exchanges of lead. Without the tensions of cliffhangers and recounts. Without the elaborate commentary by psephologists and analysts and party troopers. Makes me wish we would go back to the abacus and prolong the counting so that the whole exercise can sink into our consciousness, one vote at a time.
Counting day takes me back to General Election 1977. I was a fourteen year old who’d just finished campaigning for my late uncle, M. V. Krishnappa, who was contesting from Chikkaballapur. I managed to persuade the elders to let me be one of his counting agents. We had the humble but crucial job of sitting at one of the counting table along with representatives of other candidates. Every vote would be shown to us before being assigned to one of the candidates’ piles.
It was one long process. First the ballot box seals would be broken open. Then the votes would all be mixed up. Bunches of thousands would be then assigned to each of the tables. And this would go on for many many rounds. All by hand. The only “outsiders” allowed into the hallowed precincts would be candidates. And their supporters would mill around the counting hall, endlessly through the night. Waiting for news about ups and downs. Fiercely analyzing what’s going right and what went wrong. Listening to All India Radio and trying to figure out the national trends.
By evening, my uncle was leading by a huge margin. Thrilled, I came out for a break. To tune into Akashvani to learn about what was going on. And the early reports were off key. One or two junior Congress ministers were trailing.
As evening turned to night, we were truly shaken. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was trailing Raj Narain in Rae Bareli. Sanjay Gandhi was trailing in Amethi. The motley crew who formed the Janata party were sweeping North India. South India remained a strong Congress bastion.
Now, this was the first post-Emergency election. The Emergency had worked well in the South. Government had been efficient. Daily life was devoid of strife, free of the endless strikes and serial disruptions of normality caused by Jayaprakash Narayan’s call for Total Revolution. In South India, the Twenty Point Programme had been implemented so well that the people were happy. And while we youngsters were a bit puzzled by the fact that politician friends in the opposition were sent to jail, we knew nothing of the bureaucratic excesses that cost the Congress North India.
So it was a supreme shock to learn that our party leaders were losing left and right all over the north. We assumed that this was some initial trend that would reverse itself as the night wore on. But that was not to be. Every news bulletin in the wee hours confirmed that India was about to go through a historic transition. It was the end of the era of Congress domination and the emergence of a brief period of a bipolar national polity.
In spite of the fears of many, the tanks did not roll out into the streets of New Delhi. Indira Gandhi accepted the verdict and made way for Morarji Desai. Democracy had indeed triumphed. And the agitators of yesterday, whether the communalist Vajpayee or Advani or the socialist George Fernandes, or the champion of kisans, Charan Singh, and the defectors of the moment before, Jagjivan Ram and Bahuguna, found themselves in the same cabinet, destined to self-destruct in an orgy of ego and ideological clashes.
In contrast to 1977, when I served as a counting agent in the 2004 Karnataka Assembly elections for my father, then-Speaker, M. V. Venkatappa, the scene was totally different. The seals on the electronic voting machines are broken. They are assigned to different tables. With a press of the button that booth’s tally is known. It’s added to the running total. In a matter of minutes, (actually hours), it’s all over.
And then I came out to check the television. The trends were already visible across the country (the last general election was going on simultaneously). Sonia Gandhi’s sincere, extraordinary efforts had led the Congress to victory across the land. But in Karnataka, we had lost the plot and the election.
While I’m happy that the prolonged suspense finally came to an end, somehow I felt that the magic of yore was missing. Looking at each vote helped us really connect with every voter in some primal way. It’s like the feeling you get when you campaign door-to-door. It’s a connect with the reality of people and their existence, their yearnings, their hopes and disappointments, that’ll surely disappear if we move to just email and online voting.
To touch, to feel, to wait and watch with the counters, to analyze and contradict, to pray, to engage with unsatisfactory inadequate newspaper reports, to be part of the voters’ verdict as it comes alive, that’s the magic of the old process that I’m nostalgic about.
Well, we’re in the 21st century now and I’ll go with the flow.