Op-Ed: Down the memory lane: An object lesson In election reporting

Bhubaneswar: I cut my journalistic teeth reporting for a highly respected newspaper–perhaps the best and the most powerful in the country ( it still is)—in undivided Bihar. The state was a political hotbed and you never had a dull moment. In the cauldron politics of the state in those days George Fernandes, the maverick socialist who passed away a few months ago, was a big name.

Though George (known in the political circles of the state as George Sahab) did not spend much time in Bihar he was extremely popular in the state which has always had a weakness for flamboyant idealists, even if they happened to be dreamers. It was his historic victory from Muzaffarpur in 1977 while still lodged in jail in connection with the Baroda dynamite case that had made him a household name in Bihar. The famous poster depicting him in handcuffs behind iron bars is still reckoned among the iconic posters in India’s electoral politics.

George was a born romantic and revolutionary who loved challenges. The contest against Manorama Singh, wife of former Bihar chief minister, Chandra Shekhar Singh, in the by-election from Banka in 1986 was one such challenge that he accepted without thinking twice. It was a prestige battle for his party, Janata Party, then led by Chandra Shekhar who later became the Prime Minister of the country.

Between 1986 and 1991, the years that I spent in Bihar, I covered every election in the state and had a ringside seat to many  momentous political development including the rise of Laloo Prasad Yadav from a mere MLA to the chief minister of the state. But among the electoral battles that I had the opportunity to cover the Banka Lok Sabha by-poll was perhaps the most exciting because of the high stakes for both Congress and the Janata Party and the fact that one was watching  George  from close quarters.

It was also the first time that I met Bihar’s legendary don-turned-politician, Surya Deo Singh who was camping in Banka with his men apparently on the instructions of Chandra Shekhar whom he called “ Babuji”. My mental image of Singh before that meeting was that of a fearsome man with a forbidding countenance. He turned out to be just the opposite, one of the most innocent looking persons I have ever met. Clad in dhoti and a cotton ‘banyan’ ( vest) this tall and muscular man with a smile on his lips looked more like a village wrestler than a dreaded don.

When we asked how did he propose to tackle the likely booth capturing bid by George’s opponents in the bye-election his simple reply in Bhojpuri was “ pahile kuch hokhe dein tab dekhal jai” (let something happen first then we will see). This one-liner exuded the confidence he had in his abilities.

But on the polling day Congress, with the then Bihar excise minister, Thomas Hansda managing its campaign, outsmarted everyone. Even before Janata Party workers and leaders could realize what was happening voting on the booths had been taken care of. Later the followers of George, who did not stir out of the party office, alleged that anyone complaining about booth capturing was promptly arrested by the local police. I still wonder about the truth behind those allegations but it was a riveting battle and covering it was for me an object lesson in election reporting.

(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)