Thursday, March 16, 2017

These polls won’t be over soon enough

Enough, already, the suspense is making us sick

(Published on March 11, 2017 in Business Standard)

I’m writing this on Friday March 10, 2017, jabbing at the keyboard with the bloody stumps of my fingers now that I’ve chewed off the fingernails and kept going all the way to the knuckles. The results of five state elections will be out on Saturday, and, possibly chastened by getting so many previous elections dead wrong, the television talking heads are being unusually circumspect about the huge electoral prize of Uttar Pradesh. Thanks a lot, talking heads. Just when we could have used someone going out on a crazy limb as usual, to give us something to hang on to, you get all responsible and all, ‘Could be a hung house, but who knows.”

Over the last couple of months, I have largely stayed away from reports that purported to tell us how whole states are going to vote. It’s interesting to imagine that these reports serve as a finger held up to the political wind, but too often, especially in such a long drawn out poll schedule, they are too localised and transient to serve that purpose. This time, I told myself, just wait for the results and process what actually happens, rather than get yanked around by constantly evolving reports of a vague direction. 

Now that we’re at the exit poll stage, I’m even more convinced that this is the healthier approach. If one must pay attention to exit polls, I’m most inclined to agree with the Faking News team’s analysis: “Someone will win!” It inspires more confidence than this, from a story in “Today’s Chanakya is forecasting 285 seats for the BJP, with a margin that could even take it almost to 300, in the 404-strong assembly. Meanwhile, on the other end of the range is CVoter, which has predicted 161 seats to the BJP.” That kind of data range is a very strong indicator that nobody has any idea what’s going on.

And that’s when an exit poll isn't suspected of having been fabricated as a campaign strategy. The Wire reports that an exit poll illegally published in Dainik Jagran after the first phase of polling in UP, came to the newspaper courtesy an executive there who is also a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activist, though he has since gone to great lengths to wipe all social media traces of his affiliation to the RSS. The story says that the poll was published to bolster the BJP’s flagging campaign in UP, give voters the sense of a surge, and prevent another Bihar-style disaster; the poll was taken down quickly, but not before being widely circulated on social media, and potentially influencing the outcome of the election. The Wire has what could be a massive story of election fraud. What are the chances that it will be properly investigated if the BJP takes U.P.?

Election fatigue has set in. Ground reports are no longer relevant, exit polls don’t help, and I’m avoiding the hours of studio talk time which will attempt to break down the mind of the Indian voter in leaden detail. But I can’t help but fret about it all, and the suspense is horrible. The combined results in Punjab, Goa, Manipur, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh amount to taking the political temperature of India. A raised temperature is, of course, only one partial, inconclusive indicator of health, but when you’re worried about maybe having ebola, you don’t want any funny readings at all.

I’m only saying ebola because that, too, is a very strong force that destroys you from the inside.

Those Indians who don’t care for the formal and informal policies of the RSS-inflected BJP government are regularly accused of being anti-national. Au contraire: Some of us would contend that it is the RSS-inflected BJP government that is anti-national—dividing, infantilising, policing, and intimidating people into obedient adherence to its chauvinistic vision of what India is, and who belongs here.

These election results, especially in U.P., will be something of a referendum not just on the BJP’s official policies like demonetisation, but also on its informal policies relating to social structures and the interpretation of freedom. Those of us who see empowerment, freedom, and individual rights as positives that should accrue to every Indian, will always look for an alternative to the party of Hindutva. It’s not just a shame that the alternatives are so uninspiring—it’s dangerous. Societies are easily poisoned, and do not easily recover. And yet, it’s a large and diverse enough country that you must never write off anything, least of all a surprise.

If U.P. does, in fact, go to the BJP, there is one upside: it will swiftly be followed by Holi, and we can all get legally stoned.

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