Don’t take the Indian voters’ silence lightly
By M J Akbar
We confuse elections with noise. In truth a great silence descends upon India the moment the Election Commission rings the starting bell. Media amplifies the jangling nerves of a candidate into a scream but how do you cover the silence of the voter?
The anonymity of the opinion poll is one method. But the Indian electorate has now become the most secretive in the world, and if he does not unlock his mind all the figures that emerge from surveys add up to no better than guesswork or, at best, a rough direction-suggester. John Kenneth Galbraith once suggested that the only purpose of economic forecasting was to make astrology look respectable. Some opinion polls make star-gazers seem prophetic. Perhaps, Jayalalithaa knows what she is doing when she asks aspirants for her party ticket to come armed with horoscopes. They are probably a more accurate guide than opinion polls.
The sphinx-like stolidity of the voter can be unnerving, particularly to a candidate who has lived largely in an urban drawing room. The immature can be so easily induced into hysteria. The likes of Varun Gandhi miss an important development of the last decade when they seek support by demonising Muslims. The Hindu voter has matured. He is now enthused by the prospect of a better life, a higher income and the promise of peace within which to enjoy that income. He has contempt for the politician who cannot understand what is so easily apparent to him: that you can either encourage the arsenic simmer of communal violence or you can enliven the throb of an expanding economy. You cannot have both.
This is not to say that we have eliminated aggression from our consciousness or our discourse. That would be self-delusional. Aggression comes particularly easily to the Indian elite, but it is equally wary of any blowback. It has, therefore, devised the strategy of passive aggression, exercising its sectarian or casteist prejudice in verbal assault, always taking care to ensure that the target is not within hearing distance. The elitist anger against Mayawati has nothing to do with alleged corruption. If corruption was a social sin, in Delhi very few ministers would get invited for dinner. Mayawati’s problem is that she is ‘‘not one of us’’.
The prejudice of 10,000 years is not going to disappear after only 60 years of an egalitarian polity.
Mature politicians participate in the clamour of claims and repartee, which is the essential menu of a democratic diet. But they do their real calculations in silence. If you want to understand what Lalu Yadav really thinks of the Congress, ignore the verbiage of the accolades he may occasionally deliver in praise of Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi. Check what he did in silence. He and Ram Vilas Paswan allotted just three seats out of 40 to Congress in Bihar. This was an assessment not by enemies but friends. Mulayam Singh Yadav does not really believe Congress deserves more than six seats out of 80 in UP. Mamata Banerjee had one seat out of Bengal’s 42 in the present Lok Sabha; the Congress had five. She sent the ultimatum in the new alliance and the Congress crumpled. Deve Gowda did not even bother to open negotiations in Karnataka.
Such dismissive treatment is not exclusive to the Congress. Naveen Patnaik did not think the BJP deserved an alliance in Orissa. Where regional parties see value they change their attitude: in Assam, Bihar, Haryana and Punjab for the BJP; in Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand for the Congress.
Never confuse the Indian voter’s temporary maun vrat with the silence of the lambs. This is the silence of tigers, as they pad noiselessly towards their quarry, shattering the air of the jungle only once, with a roar with the final leap towards the prey. When tigers feed only once in five years, the casualty rate can be terrifying.
Appeared in Times of India - March 22, 2009