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Rememberance of (Indian Elections) past March 29, 2014

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.

Think back to what might be your favorite recurring event, if there is such a thing at all. A birthday/anniversary perhaps but these are rather personal and observed in limited circles. For many it might be a sporting event. In my case, the day of results of the Indian general elections would be right at the top. It would be odd to say that I look forward to this day so much that I wish it came more often, so I will not say that!

As the elections approach, I thought I would go back to recall what, if anything at all, I remember about past Indian elections and rise and fall of governments. I somehow hope to see more of these retrospectives, and certainly so from those who have seen more elections than I have. It is hard not to color this with benefit of hindsight since I am having to remember what I knew then; never quite perfect but lets do this anyway.

My earliest memory of Indian elections goes back to October 1990, as a 9 year old. We did not quite have an election that year but the government changed and there was uncertainty about who was going to be Prime minister. Our school reopening dates after the October break kept getting put off due to the political uncertainty, although I was not sure then (or now for that matter) as to why that had to be the case. Chandra Shekar eventually became the PM but I do not remember knowing anything about him. My political awareness around the time was limited to knowing the Gandhi family tree somewhat, the symbol of Janata Dal (‘wheel’) drawn all over our town, hearing about Bofors guns (probably not knowing about the scam itself), hearing the phrase “Ram Janma Bhoomi Babri Masjid” but no details about it. I only knew of 2 parties – Congress and Janata Dal, never heard of the BJP. Also remember a cousin using V. P. Singh as an example of how all ‘Singhs’ are not sikhs; no recollection of the context around that discussion. That was then. I recently read a lot about that time in Indian history from Kuldip Nayar’s autobiography.

My next memory relates to the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. Remember being woken up to be told about this and tuning into the radio to hear the details. The local newspaper (Kannada paper Udayavani for those who know) said “Rajiv Gandhi Bheekara Hatye” ( which I am guessing translates to “Rajiv Gandhi brutal assassination”). I remember hearing the phrase ‘sympathy vote’ from my mother, but never really grasped the results of the elections, or the rise of the BJP. This was also around the time our family moved to Assam. I remember being asked by my Assamese classmates if I came from the same state as the Prime Minister since we shared the same last name “Rao”. Yes, just like rest of India sees that part of the country as “North-east”, my classmates also saw me as a South Indian/Madrasi.

1996 onwards memories are fresh, with some blips of course. I actually remember tracking election results and the debates live on TV, much like debates today. On Doordarshan it was Nalini Singh and Swaminathan Aiyar as hosts if I remember correctly. It was the first time I heard the phrase “communal party”, but cheering for Vajpayee nonetheless. Someone on TV even mentioned that Congress and BJP should form a national coalition. We had a residential summer camp at school from May 15-31st. On the way to the camp on the May 15th, 1996, at the Udupi bus station there were stacks of newspapers with Gowda’s photo on the front and one of the teachers suggesting that Gowda is almost certainly the next PM. When I went to the camp, it was PVN as PM. At the camp it was ABV as PM. When the camp was over it was Gowda – truly the India of the 90s. When I got back from the camp, I remember hearing about that magnificent ABV speech during the confidence vote at the end of his 13 day government. But those weren’t the days of youtube and it was not until over 15 years later that I ended up watching the speech (in parts) over a decade later.

Ah, here is some trivia, a really random memory from that time which I wonder how many would remember. Sushma Swaraj in her 13 days as I&B minister banned an ad with Mahima Chaudury for Videocon Bazooka TV; the TV woofer was supposedly so powerful that it displaced enough air that Mahima Chaudury ended up making an impression of Marlyn Monroe’s billowing skirt. That again was India in the 90s. (Actually I wonder what keeps Doordarshan from putting up its entire archive of literally everything online.) With the benefit of hindsight, I am guessing more Indians would have preferred had PVN come back to power rather than the 3rd front.

Ok, we move on to another memory from 1997. When the Gowda government no-confidence vote was in progress, I remember Jaswant Singh mention the phrase ‘bolt from the blue’, the first time I heard that idiom. But this was 17 years ago and sometimes one wonders if these are imagined memories. So imagine my excitement when a few minutes of searching online revealed the transcript here ; he mentioned that phrase 4 times! TV news in the post Gowda, pre-Gujral days consisted of headlines about who met who – “Harkishan Singh Surjeet met Mulayam”, “Chandrababu Naidu met Laloo”, “Moopanar met A. B. Bardhan” – to agree on the least threatening Prime Minister candidate from among the leaders of the ‘United’ Front. Yes, those dark years of the 90s.

When Gujral had to go, I remember that the BJP were the favorites to come back in some capacity given the 2 years of instability of 3rd front governments and the weakness of the Congress. Deve Gowda made a statement that if the ‘communal forces’ came to power, he would quit politics (pity that in the pre-web days it is hard to find links to such gems). BJP did come back but barely made it to 13 months thanks to JJ. Astonishing that for the second time in 2 years, Tamil Nadu politics had brought down central governments and it seemed fair to remark that if the route to Delhi goes through Lucknow, the route out of the Delhi should end up in Madras.

In 1999, it was clear ABV would return especially since the NDA was going in as pre-poll alliance. Kargil had just happened and there was a sense that he had been cheated/wronged, first by JJ and then by Pakistan. Somehow I have no memories of that election other than reading all polls where ABV was the most favored PM with Sonia Gandhi far behind. I was moving between cities and had just started college.

In 2004 again, the return of the NDA was a foregone conclusion, both sentiment wise and opinion polls, both feeding into each other. I was a research assistant at IISc Bangalore, where for some reason I often worked through nights and slept through the days. I remember getting home around 10 am next morning and being stunned as I walked by the TV playing the NDTV election results program. It was all but certain that there had been a massive upset. There are theories about what happened – primary among them being the violence in Gujarat. It could well be and well deserved too.

2009 was probably the least interesting election in my memory at least. The opposition was uninspiring and rudderless, the issues – national security and black money – apparently hardly moved the electorate. I was in fact pleasantly surprised when the Congress got 206 on its own. The arrogant left was decimated and it seemed like that the Congress would now have some elbow room to take bold decisions and continue growth-oriented economic reforms. Although never a fan of the dynasty or the modus operandi of Sonia/MMS combination, I did cheer the outcome on pragmatic grounds.

That brings us to 2014, an election so different, that it deserves a post or few of its own.



1. Rajaram Kamath - June 22, 2015

Did not know you had restarted the blog until your father’s day post. Really really loved this article, could relate so much to it.

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