Op-Ed: Another Time, Another Election

Technically speaking, I had my first taste of Indian elections in the winter of December, 1984. An aspiring journalist at the time, I was sent to Mayurbhanj as part of an extensive opinion poll on the post-Indira Gandhi general elections in December being conducted by the mint-fresh Odia daily ‘Sambad’. [Happy to tell you I was spot on with my prediction. Siddhilal Murmu of the Congress defeated Bhage Gobardhan of the Janata Party.] But it was not until the summer of 1991 that I had my first real foray into the heat and dust, the pomp and pageantry and the colour and fervour of Indian elections.

My Editor Soumya Ranjan Patnaik was happy to allow me to go on a trip to Kalahandi, which at the time included present day Nuapada district, and Bolangir after being told that I was hitching a ride with two senior journalists who would hire a cab to visit the area. [In other words, he won’t have to pay for the trip!]

It was late evening by the time we reached Bolangir town. Even at that late hour, the town was burning. I remember going to the bathroom, switching on the shower and then rushing out in next to no time. The water from the shower was just too hot to handle. I didn’t know at the time that a more bizarre experience awaited me later that night. With no AC in the room, the three of us felt like breathing some fresh air. So, off we went, me in my lungi and the other two in their pyjamas (or whatever else they were wearing) in the hired car. As we were returning after driving around the town for some time, we ran into the BJP candidate: Kanak Vardhan Singhdeo. Imagine interviewing a political leader, thoroughly sozzled and in a lungi, at that unearthly hour!

The day after, however, was a sober affair but hectic nonetheless. We kept visiting several nearby places, choosing them on the basis of which of them were having political ‘events’. Along the way and on our way back, we stopped at several places for sundry little things. Curious first-timer that Ii was, I slipped out every time the car stopped to chat with anyone I could catch hold of, using my knowledge of Sambalpuri to get them to open up. On one such occasion, I heard one of the two seniors in the car (for reasons of privacy, they will remain unnamed!) telling the other; “Look at this modern day Mahatma Gandhi, listening to the woes of the poor.” I merely chuckled and carried on with my conversation.

Back in town, we met several prominent leaders of Bolangir among whom I can only remember Naransigha Mishra, the veteran Biju era leader who is still going strong at 79. They all talked the same, made the same tall claims and mouthed the same platitudes. There was no way you could ascertain which way the political wind was blowing by talking to them. This part, for me at least, was a chore that one had to go through. What I relished the most during the trip was talking to the ‘layman’ and I caught hold of as many of them as I possibly could. [This is a maxim I have followed in all subsequent elections that I have covered since then and it has served me well.]

The next day, we landed in Bhawanipatna, again late in the evening and caught hold of Bhakta Charan Das, the JD (S) candidate from Kalahandi, who was a Union minister in the caretaker Chandrasekhar government at the time. I remember Bhakta pointing to the glossy, multicolour posters lying nearby and asking us with a chuckle; “Do you know where they have been printed?” and then went on to answer the question without waiting for us: “Thompson Press, Delhi” (by far the best in the country at the time). It was now time for him to fire the second question. “Guess how much each of them would have cost?” he asked and then, for the second time in a minute, answered it himself; “Rs 7.50 a piece!” [To be fair to Bhakta Da, though, he has got wiser and mature and much more grounded over the years.] We spent the next day doing what we had done in Bolangir the day before and then started on our return journey at night. Among those we met there was Bikram Keshari Deo, the father of Arka Keshari Deo and the BJP candidate.

The first thing my Editor, who had joined the BJP only recently, asked me on return was who was winning in Kalahandi. He didn’t look very happy when I said the Congress. [Remember Subas Nayak, the man whose photograph while prostrating near the steps of Parliament was to be splashed in the front pages of major English newspapers later, long before a certain Narendra Modi repeated the ritual in 2014!) He obviously didn’t agree with my assessment but didn’t ask me to toe his line in my report. Even after all these years, I still remember the first sentence of my ‘ground report’. “If money could buy elections, Bhakta Das is the clear winner in Kalahandi. But that is not quite the way things pan out in an election.” I had seen so much disgruntlement, even anger, against him among people that I had even mentioned that he would be ‘lucky’ to get the second position. My hunch proved right. He stood third! [I have learnt over the years, however, that predicting outcomes – and that too giving the contestants ranks – is not part of the brief for a reporter covering elections.]

Little did I know at the time that the two seniors who went with me on the trip had also committed the same cardinal mistake by getting into predictions. If anything, they had compounded their sin manifold by placing Bhakta Das at the top. I remember the late Chandrabhanu Patnaik (Kabu Bhai to me) asking me how the assessment of three people, who went together, visited the same places and met the same people, could be so drastically different. “They saw what they wanted, I saw what I wanted,” I replied trying to sound philosophical. “I tend to believe you rather than them,” Kabu Bhai said.

On counting day, I remember one of the two seniors furiously pacing up and down the Soochana Bhavan verandah. [Votes were manually counted in those days and collated figures released after every round.] I asked him what he was so worked up about. “I would lose face if he doesn’t at least come up to the second position,” he muttered, more to himself than me. Bhakta, who was trailing at third position at the time, did come up to the second position briefly, but slipped back again to stay put at third spot till the end of counting!

The optics may have changed. Manual voting and counting of votes may have made way for electronic voting/counting. Social media may have revolutionized the campaign style. But the essential flavour and the sheer excitement of Indian elections – with its hustle and bustle on the ground, the ear-shattering cacophony, the splash of colour – hasn’t changed one bit in the three decades since the first election I ‘covered’. And I want to make sure I don’t miss out on any of it in this election, mercifully spread over four phases!

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)