Monday, November 21, 2005

2004 Election Reporting: Voter Fatigue

May 5: There are two Indias, come to think of it.

One India produces Nobel Prize winners, but in the other India thieves make off with a Nobel Prize medal. One India produces Muslim cricketers who help their team beat Pakistan, but in the other India, Muslims are taunted for allegedly being sympathetic towards Pakistan. One India boasts of some of the best hospitals in this part of the world, but in the other India, a man wakes up after post-mortem has been done on him. One India is partying, wearing designer clothes, but in the other India, bare-bodied people are toiling to earn their bread. The list is fairly long.

So which India is going to elections - India no. 1, which is hot and happening, or India no. 2, where people remain poor and illiterate and deprived of basic amenities and divided by caste and religion?

Depends on who you ask.

If you ask Govinda, the hero of Bollywood superhits such as Hero No. 1 and Coolie No. 1, his answer would be India no. 1. And he won't be wrong. Otherwise, he and some two dozen other filmstars would not have traded the greasepaint for the grime that is Indian elections. The glamour value attached to this year's elections is so high that except for the celebrity fashion designers, almost everybody who graces society parties in Bombay and Delhi has joined one politicial party or the other.

How did the election process become glamorous? Maybe that’s because in the last one year or so, we've been hearing a lot of good news - the sensex touching the 6000-mark (whatever that might mean to the man on the street), foreign exchange reserves touching an all-time high, the economy growing at 10.4 percent and so on. Besides, most Western papers wrote lengthy features on the booming outsourcing and the information-technology industries.

Feel-good news like these gave credibility to the India-Shining campaign that was being run by the NDA government led by BJP on television channels and newspapers. That's why a smug BJP called for early elections, hoping to cash in on this feel-good mood. Once the elections were announced, the Opposition parties pressed their own spin doctors into action.

These days, the Congress party is running an ad on TV channels which shows a young man liberally ordering tea and snacks for his friends from a roadside stall. The stall owner asks the young man, “What is the matter, you look happy. Have you got a job or what? He replies: “Not yet, but I know I will get one soon. After all, the Congress is returning to power.” The ruling party, on the other hand, runs an ad which shows pre-1947 clips of the Congress leaders who fought for India's freedom and which ends with the line: “These people made sacrifices to drive foreigners out of the country. And now some people are trying to install a foreigner as the Prime Minister.” The reference is to the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress party.

The common man, meanwhile, is sitting back and watching the elections being fought out in television channels. He isn't interested one bit, as evident from the thin crowds that public meetings of politicians have been attracting. For example, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s rally in his home constituency, Lucknow, on April 5 drew sparse crowds. And Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani's month-long campaign, cutting through the length and breadth of the country, also drew mild response from the people. Similar campaigns by him in the past had helped the BJP storm to power.

Why are the people disinterested? One reason is election fatigue. True, elections are being held after five years, but the gap hasn't made up for the fact that this would be the third general elections in eight years.

Another reason is that the parties don't have anything to offer them except tired promises. The BJP is still clinging to its promise of constructing a grand Ram temple at Ayodhya - a promise that earlier won votes but now only puts off voters. (Even the shopkeepers of Ayodhya blame the BJP for ruining their business. Pilgrims have stopped coming to this temple town ever since it was turned into a garrison following the demolition of the 16th-century Babri mosque in 1992.) And of late the BJP has a new promise - that of a developed India by 2020. That’s too distant for the Indian voter. As a man in one of Advani’s meetings commented: “In that case we will vote for the BJP in 2019.”

The Congress, on the other hand, is a party that has ruled India for more than 40 years since 1947, so its promises don't really hold any credibility. On top of it, it doesn't have a leader who could be projected as the alternative Prime Minister. Maybe the party will wait for the children of Sonia Gandhi to gain enough political experience to run for the top job.

Still, people have to vote for someone or the other. Even here, TV channels are trying to do the job for them. One of the channels recently commissioned AC Nielsen to conduct a survey, which gave the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance a clear majority. It showed the NDA winning 287-307 of the 543 seats and the Congress and its allies winning only 143-163.

Now, if the actual results are drastically different than this, then you can be sure it was India no. 2 that went to the elections.

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