Byline by M J Akbar: High and Happy in Diwali Democracy
Rio de Janeiro or Munich might enjoy a reputation wrapped in an advertising package, but there is no country in the world that can compete with India when it comes to celebration. Others might turn a weekend into a party and pat themselves on the back, but when an Indian gets into a festive mood, time goes to sleep for ten days, and then wakes up most reluctantly. Who knows when Diwali begins, although we do have a reasonable idea of when it ends. It ends the day you stop losing money.
Of course we Indians celebrate in the name of religion, but then there is very little in India that remains untouched by faith. We even gamble in honour of the gods. Our holidays are an extension of religious tourism. Religion works in India because we make it so much fun, whether it be the worship of Ganapati Bappa Moriya in the west or Ma Durga in the east.
The rest of the world may have forgotten that “holiday” is a combination of “holy” and “day”, but not Bengal — except that Bengalis do not believe in the singular. Celebration is plural in every sense: spread over days, and enjoyed in the togetherness of family, friends and that special kinship which makes a metropolis like Kolkata a swirling city of community affections. London and New York might also claim that they do not pause between Christmas and New Year’s Day, but there is a great difference. In the West, every home comes alive but the city falls silent. In Kolkata the city becomes home and home becomes the city. If you have not experienced Durga Puja in Bengal, you have missed a true human wonder. There is no way that Pranab Mukherjee or Mamata Banerjee would be anywhere except at home during “Pujo”. I hope I am not accused of exaggeration and excess, but I daresay that even a Marxist atheist like Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee smiles during Durga Puja.
And if this mood is burnished with special effects, all the better. Rome might boast that it is the ultimate destination in religious tourism, but Rome offers the visitor the political and cultural history of the West in its stones. Kolkata, in comparison, is a young city with less-than-impressive British buildings, many of them seemingly unpainted since the British left. The art of Rome is a magical explosion of individual genius. The art of Durga Puja is a magical explosion of anonymous genius. Each image is beautifully crafted with the commitment of adoration, but the Kumartuli craftsman knows that the Goddess will go away, along the river, just as we all will one day. Rome preserves marble; Kolkata preserves the moment.
Why then has the Election Commission, a body of intelligent, experienced and utterly reasonable men, become such a party pooper? We may no longer have the highest opinion of our politicians, but, as full-fledged Indian citizens, Arunachal, Haryana and Maharashtra’s politicians have as much right to a happy Diwali as the rest of us. Instead, they have been condemned to the misery of a campaign. For half the lot the anguish will end in a death pang when they get the results and learn that they have lost. They also know that only the very stupid or the very arrogant are confident of victory. This is why all political parties were happy when the Election Commission decided to declare the results on 22 October, nine days after polling on 13 October. When a suggestion was floated that the results could be announced earlier, politicians pleaded with the commissioners to announce their fate only after Diwali — no one wanted bad news during the festival. This is what is known as a perfect Indian solution.
Many reasons have been offered for the sharp paucity of women candidates in the lists of all parties, the most frequent being gender bias. This is true. If you removed women who became candidates because they are children or wives of Big Shots, their percentage would shrink further. Men still cannot get over the fact that theoretical rights have to be converted into practical numbers. But one would not be surprised if some women with the potential to become candidates decided, sensibly, that this was too much of a mug’s game in any event, so why waste a Diwali on such a barren objective?
Moreover, women are not very good at distributing liquor. The Mumbai excise department has passed an order that all bars in the city must report their daily sales till election time, so that it can judge, from any sharp hike, whether a candidate has been especially hospitable. I don’t know what kind of bureaucracy the excise department has, but it is obvious that it has absolutely no clue about how elections are managed.
There are two ways in which happiness is spread prior to an election. The first is through the distribution of cash to the straggle of sycophants charmingly described as “party workers”. These chaps start getting their handouts from the moment a candidate files his nomination. The “party worker” spends about a quarter of this cash for the benefit of the voter, and the rest on numerous benefits for himself. This might or might not include an investment in the joys of liquor. The more conscientious family types might, for instance, buy better furniture for their homes, or a larger refrigerator to keep the wife happy. But it is safe to assume that business at Mumbai’s bars will show a sharp rise from Friday the 25th of September and maintain a steady upward incline till 12 October. If the excise department asks the bar owner for an explanation the latter will attribute it to the Diwali spirit.
The disbursal of alcohol to the masses, a well-recognised facet of Indian democracy, does not happen through bars. Bars charge a huge premium. No candidate, however well-heeled, has money to waste. Bottles are purchased wholesale and distributed in the camouflage of dusk. The excise department should check out wholesale merchants, not retailers.
The spirit of Diwali will demand an extra supply of benevolence in this election season. For the political class in Maharashtra and Haryana, Diwali will come early. Many of you have probably become cynical enough to describe our system as Diwala [the Hindi word for bankrupt] Democracy, but I remain faithful to the system. Happy Diwali Democracy!