Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Mind Your Elections: Clichémageddon

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

While the rest of the country was busy shouting expletives at their favourite IPL teams on teevee and hoping that Sachin Tendulkar wouldn’t injure his ‘brand’ by pulling a ‘Ganguly’ and overstaying his welcome, the people of Karnataka were busy electing a new set of porn addicts to darken the legislative halls of ‘India’s weather capital,’ Bangalore.

Elections in India bring out all the clichés to the yard.

The clichémageddon begins before even a single vote is cast. Most days leading up to the election are spent talking about the gaffe of the day. Some unpolished leader will say what is really on their mind and people will be shocked and outraged that an Indian politician is a horrible person on the inside. If the person is a senior leader of their party or are instrumental to the election campaign, they will begrudgingly release a terse statement saying that they didn’t mean to cause any offence; a sort of non-apology in which you can sense the gritted teeth and the unstated contempt. If the leader is a disposable sycophant, their party will leave them to fend for themselves and they will disappear from the election campaign for a few days.

There will also be a lot of puffy teevee and print profiles in which a reporter spends a day or two with one of the star campaigners for a party in which they show how hard the leader is campaigning for the elections by addressing multiple meetings in one day, clocking thousands of miles in a helicopter and/or chartered jet. You can tell which leader is being setup for the electoral success-failed government-eventual comeback narrative by the amount of news coverage they receive.

The most common refrain that we hear from every second person covering the elections is that in India people vote their caste and do not cast their vote. Which is a horrible thing to say because not only is it a bad pun, it reveals a casual acceptance of racism. Nope, nothing to see here. Everything’s a-okay! Just a large percentage of people being bigots. It’s a feature of Indian democracy, not a bug! We are like this only, etc.

On the day of the elections, we get to see exciting pictures of party leaders casting their votes for the “political leaders: they’re just like us except they get to cast their vote accompanied by security personnel and hundreds of flashing cameras!” segments. After the polls close, they release the voter percentage. Without any exception, the most prominent urban city in the state is revealed to have the most appalling percentage of voter turnout. That city becomes the object of everyone’s disappointment. Celebrity panellists chide the eligible voters who didn’t bother to show up at a polling station and question their commitment to civic engagement because, apparently, casting a vote once every few years is the answer to all your problems. Low voter turnout also helps people on the internet play a round of their favourite game: my third world, dystopian shithole of a city is better than your third world, dystopian shithole of a city because more of us show up to stand in a line to select our next ‘most corrupt government yet.’

Then there are the exit polls. From the moment the last vote is cast to counting day, we are on the receiving end of analysis, debates, arguments, plausible scenarios, hypothetical coalitions, and bad metaphors based on these famed ‘polls,’ even though they are seldom accurate. But no one ever takes any responsibility for being wrong! Instead, we end up hearing paeans to the Indian voter who suddenly turns out to be ‘smart’ and ‘wise.’ Hey, the gypsy lady with a crystal ball who writes our poll predictions was having an off day. What can we do about it?

However, the major impact of clichémageddon is felt on counting day. If you turn on NDTV, you get to see a panel of experts who were popular and respected in the 1990’s but have spent the last decade being exposed for the hacks they are. Times Now will have more old people on its panel than a ‘yoga shivir’ in Haridwar so they spend all their time shouting at each other. IBN makes it clear that no matter what the results show, the real winner of the election is always their coverage, which has won every award they have printed out on Rajdeep’s personal ‘dot-matrix’ printer. Headlines Today is the popular destination for all the analysts no other channel invited - like the world’s premier writer of erotic Rahul Gandhi fan fiction, Sanjay Jha. Headlines Today is the “linked-in” of Indian news channels; people join it just to get a better job somewhere else.

The reaction of the political parties was also quite predictable. The BJP was pretending to be shocked that changing names of cities, banning beef every few months and beating up people trying to get a drink after a bad day at work didn’t make them popular. Deve Gowda’s party wrapped up all its dry cleaned jackets in plastic, put on its pyjamas, and got ready to go back into hibernation for the next five years. And the Congress ‘outsourced’ the election of its chief minister to the party’s ‘high command.’

If only there was some way to determine what the people really wanted.

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