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Taking Stock
Elections Then And Now
By Rizwan Ullah

Rizwan UllahVillage chowkidar, the last post of the raj and a reminder of its authority lived on the fringe of the village. He came one day and announced the date and time of the election. A dark skinned man of average height with pointed whiskers projecting out on the sides of the sunken cheeks with still more sunken in sockets dirty dark eyes, wearing a kurta, dhoti, locally made hide shoes covered with a thick coat of dust and of course a blood red length of cloth on his shoulder, a symbol of all the power on earth that the British empire wielded, was the person of chowkidar Chikhuri Singh. His occasional round inside the village would harken every body that there was some thing unusual or an announcement was to be made. That was in late 1930s when we were children and heard of an election for the first time without wondering what it was all about. Now I understand that was the election for the district board.

However, after that announcement there was nothing unusual in the village, no commotion or excitement. People seemed busy as usual in fields or in their indigenous professions perhaps quite unaware of what was about to happen. Even otherwise it mattered little to them as it did not touch even the fringes of their lives. They would continue to live at the mercy of zamindars working on the anvil for repairing small farm implements, thrashing clothes on stone slabs in ponds or making earthen pots and tiles and at the end of the day hardly getting enough to feed the family, leaving children to fend for themselves next morning.

As I have said the elections were perhaps for electing members of the district board. The ownership of landed property was the prime condition for voting rights. It means that it was exclusive for zamindars. Obviously then, in a small village there would be only a few zamindars enough to be counted on one hand's fingers and the rest of the people would be working to prop them up, and in the process earning some thing to live from hand to mouth, just short of starvation. A couple of days before the said elections elders would confabulate among themselves about something beyond our comprehension. But we could guess that something was going to happen as the elders were sorting better clothes and shoes were thoroughly rubbed and rinsed. At last on the appointed morning their total number would be sufficient to ride on one or two elephants. They went in the morning to the district city and returned in the afternoon with days dross on their faces radiating the pink of pride on being distinct from the rest of the people around them and also unconsciously believing that they were part of the invisible power that ruled the country. May be this very fact was deeply rooted in the subconscious of the freedom fighters and that might be the reason why abolition of zamindari was at the top of the Congress agenda after attaining independence. It was the logical extension of the same agenda which resulted in the abolition of the erstwhile Indian states and their merger with the Indian Union.

In latter days, as we know, elections for various bodies became part of the normal political activity in the country. People in general despite their poverty and deprivations, failures and frustrations believed that this means of expressing their will must some day solve all of their problems. So in spite of riots, disturbances and other desperate situations the general elections had a semblance of a national festival. The days preceding and following elections presented the look of a festive season. Processions and public meetings enthused people. But as the years and decades after independence passed a degeneration and superficiality has overtaken that festive exuberance. If it depicts the decadent political climate in the country on the one hand, on the other hand it reflects the frustration of the people whose dream of a better future shattered on the hard rocks of the realities of life.

The intent of writing this piece is to point out the extent of damage to and the deviation from the objective. Instead of being a process of establishing peace in the society elections have become a disturbing element. All sorts of manipulations and corruptions at various steps of the process including threats to the minority voters and street vandalism by so-called party workers are resorted to. Again, there are invisible malpractices in the wake of elections such as, use of money power, tinkering with electoral rolls and proxy voting. The most dangerous trend in this respect is the growing tendency of the party in power to manipulate the whole situation in its favour through adopting measures detrimental to the well established practices for knowing the will of the people with regard to the nature of administering their affairs.

Another reason for wrihing this piece is to point out that the power may or may not have come from the barrel of the gun the state authority is not only that which is apparent through the presence of the man in uniform or by the show of arms. The real authority is the one which is reflected from the behaviour of the people who are supposed to be affected by the exercise of that authority, by their quite obedience or submission to the orders of the invisible authority, their abiding by its orders in public or in ones privacy. The real power of the authority was reflected by the presence of a simple chowkidar and a piece of red cloth was enough to certify that an ordinary person represented all the powers at the command of the authority. Every body felt safe and secure in the village in the presence of that single person on the fringe of the village. That was power; that was authority. Now as political parties have hijacked the very institution of elections they tend to use it to their benefit in every possible manner. Even state elections are affecting national issues and the measures to deal with them. It virtually amounts to the tail wagging the dog.

A lone chowkidar shows the presence of authority and its power and an armed crowed of hooligans shows the absence of it.

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