Today is Feb 29, a leap day. As a young boy, to me, it was synonymous with the birthday of Morarji Desai, the fourth prime minister of India. He came into power in 1977, at the age of 81 but since he was born on Feb 29, we joked that he was just 20 years old! I was not even ten years old when he was elected but I played my small part in the election. More than I have in any election since then.
Indira Gandhi, the third prime minister of India, declared the infamous emergency in 1975. Elections were suspended, civil liberties curbed and her political opponents were jailed. It did not affect me in any way, I was in first grade when it was declared but I would hear the elders talk about it when they met and I figured it wasn’t a good thing. My suspicions were confirmed when my Dad overheard me making a silly joke involving the prime minister’s name and told me not to repeat the joke in public since we were liable to get into trouble. At that age, your dad is your hero and invincible for all practical purposes. If he feared that a silly joke could get us into trouble, then things were definitely not good.
When the elections of 1977 came around, I was in third grade. The atmosphere was politically charged. I used to go to school in a cycle rickshaw and my friend’s dad was a hard-core supporter of the opposition, the Janata Party (People’s party). My friend would instigate us and as we returned from school, the kids in the cycle rickshaw would yell in unison “Vote for Janata Party”. When I look back, it must have been incongruous to hear kids under the age of ten, yelling political slogans on their way back from school. But those were not ordinary times.
Our neighbors were also keen Janata party supporters and they would hand out election paraphernalia to us kids. Badges and flags to distribute to people and posters that we stuck on walls. When the “Gas balloon man” made his rounds, they would buy balloons inflated with helium. They would then tie each balloon’s string to pamphlets and give them to us. We would take them around the neighborhood and let the balloons float off into the sky. It seemed as if they were sending their aspiration heavenwards but when the gas eventually fizzled out, the pamphlets would eventually float down to another corner of the neighborhood.
It was a significant election and I still remember the names of the members of the opposition, which was a coalition of different parties. Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Jagjivan Ram, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and George Fernandes, the firebrand trade union leader who went underground during the emergency to avoid arrest. Jayaprakash Narayan, the eminent Gandhian was the inspiration for the opposition. I knew where my parents’ loyalties lay and I think it was this election where large swathes of the population who had been supporters of the Congress party changed their minds and voted for the opposition.
The Janata Party won in a landslide and Morarji Desai became the first non-Congress prime minister of India. My friends and I were elated, at that age, we just felt happy that our “team” had won. As coalitions go, this one fractured in a couple of years and Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980. I left India in early 1992 after my undergrad degree and have never voted in an Indian election.
Politics, in general, is dirty and there is a saying that it is the last resort of scoundrels. That’s not always true. Honest people do try to make a difference and I was witness to one such attempt. The college union elections at my undergrad college were generally standard affairs. There was the North Indian lobby which garnered its support from the North Indians in the college as well as other hostel residents who did not identify with the locals. Then, there was the local lobby appealing to the sentiments of the locals and exploiting their resentment towards the “outsiders”. Somewhere, simmering in this cauldron of parochial loyalties was an “SC/ST” (Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe) lobby representing the students from the reserved quotas.
The unions did nothing of worth. They usually promised to improve hostel facilities and the quality of food in the mess. They seldom did but organized a few strikes during the academic year for inane reasons. The real attraction though was the annual college festival where funds were disbursed by the college to organize the festivities. It was alleged that the union and their buddies got to pilfer a fair chunk of the funds.
When I was in the final year, my junior, RR who was in the second year decided to run for college president. He was an upright individual who decided to take on the system and reform it instead of watching passively from the sidelines. It was unheard of for a second-year student to contest the elections and nobody gave him a chance. What the well-entrenched interests did not take into account was the fact that the college had switched to a system of electing class representatives who then voted in the officers of the union as opposed to the previous model where the students elected the union officers directly.
RR worked assiduously to cultivate contacts across all the batches and across all the classes. Wherever possible, he had his friends stand for class representatives, When he did not know the candidates, he had himself introduced to them through mutual friends. He was transparent in his intentions, he wanted to have a union that truly represented the students and did not indulge in shenanigans. Meanwhile, the other candidates were slow to adapt to the changing landscape. Instead of giving vague speeches and relying on old loyalties, they actually had to track down who was running for the class representative positions.
RR tried hard to recruit me to run as secretary or treasurer. He would visit my room and we would have long discussions. I was in my final year, I had not enjoyed my time at the college and just wanted to graduate and leave. RR kept driving the point that if honest people did not stand up and run for office, the rot would continue and the system would never change. Standing on the sidelines and criticizing the system would not help, one had to throw one’s hat into the ring and join the fray. He had a valid point but I was steadfast in my refusal. I did introduce him to a few seniors who were planning on running for the class representative positions.
When the realization finally dawned on the other factions that there was a good chance they would lose, they did the thing that came naturally to them. They curtly asked RR to withdraw from the race. When he refused, they threatened him with bodily harm. And so it was that RR started moving around with two hefty friends and stopped sleeping in his room but kept switching rooms each night to avoid any attacks. His friends were hefty but I suspect they were just for show, I don’t think they had been in a fight even once in their life or had to defend themselves, forget anyone else.
The elections came and RR won handily. For the union inauguration, he invited his uncle as the chief guest. His uncle had retired after a long career as a distinguished judge. This was a coup of sorts, previous chief guests were college officials or local luminaries. The chief guest’s speech was unfortunately interrupted by the supporters of the losing candidates who kept heckling him and generally creating a din. The truth is that even if they were quiet, they would have barely understood his words.
RR was an honest broker in his dealings with the management but he started running into problems from the outset. The accounts for the previous year had to be reconciled but he could never seem to meet the faculty representative. The faculty member would keep scheduling meetings but would never show up proffering various excuses. Those were days prior to email, social media, cell phones etc. So one had to meet in person. It finally dawned on RR that he was never going to meet the representative. There was a tacit understanding that the funds pilfered from the college festival would be shared between the union and the faculty member. This was a long-standing practice that would not stand the scrutiny of a reformer.
There were other problems too. The college office would generally delay handing out marks sheets or releasing the results etc just long enough for some of the skittish students to bribe them to view their results. When RR tried to put a stop to this practice, a section of the office went on strike. A casteist angle was attributed to the whole affair, RR came from a higher caste, the office peon in question came from a lower caste.
Despite all odds, RR and his team put up a great college festival. I was ill and was at home but I heard it was a resounding success. He pulled out all the stops putting every Rupee to work besides enlisting his close friends to work hard to organize the events. The previous festivals were lackluster affairs, this one was different. However, at the end of the year, RR was dejected. He got to see and understand stuff that was not visible to us. He tried his best but was thwarted at every step and decided not to run for elections the following year.
When I heard this, my first reaction was “I told you so”. But when I look back, it was a knee-jerk, cynical reaction. He had taken a stand and done his best to make a dent in an entrenched corrupt system. I wanted it both ways, I did not want to put my neck on the line but I also wanted to criticize the system from the outside. In many ways, the college experience was a microcosm of national politics. Parochial and casteist factions held sway. The motivation to run for power was fueled by financial greed. Physical intimidation and violence were the means to stifle opposition. Genuine ideas were in short supply, vague populist ideas sufficed. The honest and most able people did not run for elections. And when they did, they had to fight against enormous odds and apathy from the general public.
Two elections of different scales and consequences. Both promised to question the status quo, usher in change and reform the system. The first was helmed by career politicians who could not curb their egos or rise above their personal differences. They could not even complete a term in office. The second involved an honest individual who genuinely wanted to make a difference, he stuck it out, not giving in and completed his term. Both failed to change the system, but the second failure rankles more in my mind.
The newspaper image is from the Indian Express web archive