Celeb Crusades and the Death of Politics

The barrage of celebrity propaganda to “get out there to vote” had an impact in Mumbai. Voting fell by 6 per cent. Well, okay, that’s being facetious. But had the voting risen, it would certainly have been credited in good measure to the celebrity campaigns, 26/11 and the media’s untiring appeals to an ungrateful electorate. Urged by a special song campaign from a well-meaning Bangalore-based rock band to “Shut up and vote,” too many Mum baikars paid heed to only the first part of that exhortation. (As did voters in Bangalore, too.) In Mumbai, voting was 41.41 per cent this time around as compared to 47.15 per cent in 2004.

Corporate media’s cutest efforts failed to arrest a decline in voting percentage. Nor did corporate-sponsored events and NGO activism fare any better. The Facebook fraternity, and e-activism didn’t come out of it too well either (raising questions about real IT penetration even in this wealthy city). Such was the case  even in the constituency that received more space and time than any other — south Mumbai, which saw 40.33 per cent polling (2004: 44.22 per cent). Nor did the expected level of “anger over 26/11” materialize much beyond the television studios. Many rural constituencies in Maharashtra, despite a relative fall in turnout, saw higher voting than Mumbai.

Even after  polling day, the focus was on how Bollywood stepped up to the challenge of voting. The largest English daily (including its captive tabloid and city supplement) had as many as 11 items across 8 pages on celebrity, mostly Bollywood, voting in Mumbai. These ran with heaps of pictures, featuring around 50 film world personae and assorted other celebs, kicking off with the main front-page photograph.
Just in case this was all too subtle for readers, the items ran helpful headlines. “Bollyvote.” “Filmdom flashes finger with pride.” “City hi-fliers step out to get inked.” “What a star cast.” And “Glam quotient: Mumbai’s celebrities step out in style.” One small item framed Shilpa Shetty’s edict that “elections have to be taken seriously.” She regretted being unable to follow this advice herself, being in Durban for Indian Premier League cricket.

Ms Shetty is not alone, though. Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar did vote in the earlier round, but whizzed off to Durban less than a week later. The national leader and potential Prime Minister had pressing business there. Yes, with the IPL. And so he left to attend to it before the Mumbai voting, leaving the slog overs to the tail-enders.
My favorite, though, was the charge of the Lightbulb Brigade on television. One celebrity urged everybody to vote. “I vote every year,” he said earnestly. Every year? Oh, the blessings of democracy. Another phrased it better, saying he voted “every time.” (Though, given his age, it couldn’t have been too many times.)

On the whole, slumdogs vote in larger numbers than the white-ribbon, candlelight crowd do. The final figure of a constituency is an average of how its different segments, sections and socio-economic groups voted. Even Malabar Hill has many poor voters. Generally, the poor vote in greater numbers. (The rich capture governments by other means.) The poor usually want to use the vote. It is the one instrument of democracy they get to exercise. But across the country, not just in Mumbai, millions are affected when elections are held in April-May. It is around this time that many regions see their largest exodus of migrant labor. Those workers do not get to vote. We take school and college examination schedules into account while fixing poll dates — and rightly so. But we take no note of the survival schedules of the poor.

In the diverse city of Mumbai, more than half the population lives in the slums and on the streets. Many who would vote are not registered. Several have had their status questioned. More so after slum demolitions, shifting and multiple relocations. Many, even if they are registered to vote in Mumbai, tend to go back to their villages (in Maharashtra or elsewhere) when given a break — as in this time’s four-day weekend. So even voting among the poorer sections is affected.

April-May is also the marriage season in many parts of the country. In Vidarbha, for instance, priests and astrologers had long ago declared April 16 (the voting day there) to be one of the most auspicious days for weddings. That too impacts on voting. The horoscope seers, alas, also fail each time to inform the Election Commission that temperatures of 46 degrees Celsius do not throw up the most auspicious days for voting. For the urban middle classes, this is vacation time. Nobody sees it as a great time to vote. But with Mumbai’s Beautiful People, having whipped up a lather over how “things have changed with 26/11,” a sense of letdown is inescapable. It is also, given the realities, quite overdone.

There is even, face it, the apathy of the comfortable. Those who might well explode in drawing-room or television studio outrage about high taxes and 26/11, but who see no real need to fiddle with the status quo. The comfort zone classes exist and are more urban than rural. See the difference between voting in rural Karnataka and Bangalore.

There is also, for the non-comfort zone classes, the small matter of issues. When last did the problems of food price rise, BPL cards, or ration quotas, dominate campaigns in either the Lok Sabha [national poarliament] or the State Assembly polls? Or those of sanitation, water, housing, demolitions and jobs? For millions in India’s megapolis, as elsewhere, these are very real issues. It’s a long time since anyone in Mumbai articulated a vision that integrates these basics into a national platform or perspective. The same failure also helped produce lower voting in other towns and even rural regions beyond Mumbai.

It has much to do with the death of politics. Even the BJP’s Hindutva crusade and the Shiv Sena’s shrillest campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s did not result in Mumbai’s best voter turnouts. Has low voting always been the rule here? No. The Lok Sabha constituencies of Mumbai averaged over 60 per cent voting for 20 years between 1957 and 1977. All years of politics, workers rights, unions, historic policy decisions and rising consciousness. There were ideological debates around economic, social and foreign policy. In this city, Krishna Menon took on J.B. Kripalani and George Fernandes slugged it out with S.K. Patil. The ordinary Mumbaikar’s level of political participation was stunning.
Bollywood did not rule — although even the films of the time were more ideological. Sure, jobs, hunger, rations, food prices are ‘local’ issues — even highly personal ones. They are also intensely national problems as well. (Last year, food prices were a global issue.) The price of bread has often proved the price of power.

In the present round, many well-meaning “awareness-raising” groups brought no politics to their voting drive. “Vote, you must vote! Don’t fail to vote.” For whom? For what? And why? One critic likened this to urging people to rush to get married without knowing who their partners might be. At points, the campaigns even raised this sense in young people — of voting to feel good about yourself. Not for any political reason. Some of the groups asked voters to focus on the individual candidates. Not his or her political platform. So it’s okay if your “clean” candidate has a genocidal political agenda. This cannot help much with a young generation already depoliticized and exposed daily to the media scorn of politics and all that goes with it.

In Mumbai, perhaps, the voting would have been higher had Vilasrao Deshmukh’s government still been around. One of that gentleman’s last acts as Chief Minister  of Maharashtra was to visit the Taj Hotel after the terror attacks with his film actor son and a prominent Bollywood film maker, offending just about everybody. Had he remained in power after that, there might have been higher polling in the city, against  Deshmukh’s Congress Party.

At the end of it, voting levels fell in Mumbai, and elsewhere, too. It was curious then, to see one discussion on Maharashtra on television. The panellists wondered if the prospect of Mr. Pawar as Prime Minister would evoke a burst of Maharashtrian pride, and if this would see the NCP-Congress alliance make huge gains. (As the channel’s opinion poll suggested it would.) Now, the alliance could indeed make gains in the State, but would that be the reason? Problem: the decline in voting in Mr. Pawar’s bastions in western Maharashtra has been, in relative terms, even greater than that in Mumbai. In Baramati, that decline (compared to 2004) was over six per cent. In Satara, over seven per cent. In Sangli over eight per cent and in Solapur over 10 per cent. If that is an outburst of pride, it is a very humble pride. Try issues, ideology, politics and decent election schedules. That could bring out far more voters any day, in Mumbai or elsewhere.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.





P Sainath is the founder and editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought.’ You can contact the author here: @PSainath_org