Debating India

IMPRESSIONS

Rollercoaster In Hell

Anita PRATAP

Monday 17 May 2004, by PRATAP*Anita

Electioneering is no fun, fending off sabotaging rivals and disappointed allies

What is it really like to contest a Lok Sabha election? After accompanying an eminent contestant as a friend, not as a journalist, I’d describe a typical day in the life of an election candidate as a rollercoaster ride in hell.

It turned out to be an action-packed day, one in which we came face to face with many ugly facets of life-corruption, intimidation, hassles, tension, disruption. It began with us discovering that the reasonably priced hotel we were booked in didn’t have rooms. They were taken over by a rival party that rules the state. Booth capturing clearly comes way after hotel capturing in this game! After much fuming, an alternate hotel was found.

Forget booth capturing, we didn’t find rooms in a hotel as rivals had booked them!

Then, an early morning padayatra was delayed by an income-tax official who slyly threatened a raid unless bribes were paid. There was no question of paying bribes, income-tax raids would yield nothing, but nobody wanted bad publicity. So rather than confrontation, campaign managers took the path of diplomacy. It was a sickening, arduous, time-consuming task to dislodge the parasite.

The income-tax sleazeball was only the first in a long queue of men and women with outstretched palms. The rest were legitimate, at least in the sense they wanted money for electioneering. But the appetite for money was endless and prodigious. Bills kept pouring in. Demands escalated while finances dwindled. If one wanted more money for posters, another wanted for transport. The demands of most couldn’t be met, so there were many heated exchanges. A substantial amount of money had been spent already on posters and hoardings, yet visibility was poor compared to the ruling party candidate’s publicity blitz. Though renowned, the candidate belonged neither to the BJP nor the Congress, and so lacked the organisational network needed for electioneering. Besides, he had an election symbol voters were not familiar with. So he needed to publicise much more, but there was acute shortage of money, men and material.

As it is there was a shortage of posters. Imagine, then, the candidate’s dismay when he discovered that ruling party workers had ripped off his posters in one neighbourhood. In another instance, two low-level government employees were caught red-handed tearing down his posters. Aides were suddenly burdened with new duties. They had to quickly print and fax complaints to the Election Commission about these malpractices.

Put two human beings together and an outbreak of bickering is inevitable. Everybody becomes a busybody. Aides had their own ideas of how best to tackle difficult situations. When things went wrong-and they constantly did-everyone blamed the other. Local and outstation aides collided. Their styles of operation were different and each camp found the other’s methods intolerable. The locals thought the city-dwellers were fancy but hopelessly disconnected from reality. The outsiders saw the locals as stupid and inefficient. As if his plate was not already full, the candidate, who had just returned after canvassing for votes for two hours in the scorching afternoon sun, walked into a raging fight in his election office. He dug into his enormous reservoir of energy and patience to soothe both camps without being partisan, struggling to get them to function as a team.

Barely had he settled this when he received an angry call from a key supporter. The 10 taxis given to her for electioneering were inexplicably withdrawn. He demanded an explanation from his staff and his fury level rose as the buck was passed. It turned out the taxi company acted on telephonic instructions from an unidentified caller. The conclusion was that the ruling party was busy sabotaging.

After mechanisms were put in place to prevent recurrence of such trickery, the candidate held discussions with opposition parties for an hour.

Then, he was about to relax for 15 minutes with a cup of tea when a new crisis erupted. Campaign managers discovered he had to attend two public meetings at the same time, one arranged by a crucial ally, the other by his own group. So after much frayed tempers and scolding, the candidate decided to attend both meetings, arrive early for one and a little late for another. He rushed off without drinking his tea.

At the public meeting, the exhausted candidate suddenly came alive. Like all politicians, he drew energy from the crowd. He made a fiery, pungent speech and enjoyed the applause. This is what the media projects. This is the razzmatazz of Indian elections, democracy at work, the bustle at the hustings. The media got their quotes, their shots and packed up. But not the candidate. He went to the next and the next meeting, until it was 10 pm. Even then, he returned to his election office to walk into another crisis. There were competing demands for election meetings the next day. Humanly impossible to accommodate all the requests, he had to pick and choose. Yet, he could not afford to alienate anyone. After much discussion, a semblance of amity was reached. But there was no time for relief. An aide rushed in with an angry message from the assistant district magistrate, who demanded to be informed a day in advance about the precise venues of the rallies and padayatras. Or, he would stop their electioneering. That prompted another rush of activity. But the candidate’s day was still not over. After a strategy meeting with top aides, he went back to his hotel to meet an endless stream of well-wishers, allies and advisors. It was two in the night before he called it quits because he had to be up at six the next morning. He ate biscuits, as it was too late for room service.

Candidates are on an adrenaline high, driven by motives ranging from ambition to altruism, power-hunger to self-aggrandisement to noble intentions. But outsiders must wonder how they can voluntarily endure such torture.

P.S.

(The author can be reached at post@anitapratap.com)

in Outlook India, Monday, May 17, 2004.

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