Handling the election blues

Short Story

I cast my vote today for the first time in the general parliamentary election. But I couldn’t care less about who wins. The ballot sheet was full of varmints. But I am certain that one of those varmints will be invested with power to rule over the ‘dumb millions’, thanks to our much-trumpeted democratic process.  Frankly, I now feel sorry for having lost my electoral virginity.

Your Vote,Your Power — a message tantalisingly displayed in the neighbourhood hoardings, urging you to come out and exercise your ‘choice’. Yes, very convincing, very empowering! Except that you only have a choice to pick one from a basket full of rotten apples. It is funny how powerfully three rotten apples actually brainwash millions of people to select them. The more rotten they are, the more vociferous is their supplication.

Disclaimer: This is not my rant against democracy. On the contrary, I believe that democracy in principle has a great face value. Well, only in principle. But principles and the political system rarely cross paths in this country. Besides, our Netas neither have any face nor any value.

To be honest, I have already lost my electoral virginity. I have exercised my franchise in my college, in my high school, in the cricket club and a hell lot of other places. All those polls were curiously similar in their outcome — the person least qualified for the job always got through. The Goddess of Democracy, it seems, is hopelessly infatuated with ineptitude.

Now, I know what you are thinking about me — ‘Keep it down, you cynical grouse. We have heard this a million times.’

Be patient! — to misuse the boy-scout motto. I will tell you my story. You can then judge whether I have a justifiable reason to be a cynical grouse. I am sure by the end of it you will realise that, if anything, I have understated my cynicism. It was my first suffering with suffrage.

It happened 10 years ago when I was eight years old, still struggling to make sense with third grade mathematics. I had trouble in doing divisions, which is why I ended up scoring poorly almost every time. But Arjun had no problems in doing divisions. In fact, he had no problems in doing many other things, which is why he was patronised by the teachers and loathed by most students. Arjun coincidentally shared a fate similar to that of his mythological counterpart in Mahabharatha, who too is said to have evoked envious responses from his fellow students for being their teacher’s favourite. Apart from academics, Arjun also outperformed many others in physical activities as well. He frequently won prizes in various sport competitions. He lived in the same neighbourhood as I did.

We were good friends, although my classmates frequently conspired to wean me away from our friendship by telling me ‘secrets’ about him.

Samples of their arsenal against him:

“You don’t know man, I saw him copying in the science test.”

“Kamala teacher is his aunt. That’s why he always gets the highest in her subject.”

“He bluffed that they have a Toyata car! A Toyata! That liar doesn’t even have a Maruti!”
But none of these things changed my attitude towards Arjun. Our friendship remained stubbornly steadfast. You’ve got to give me credit for this. One must never underestimate the frequency with which eight-year-olds change friends, particularly when one is running the risk of having an unpopular one.

Not only were we good friends, we had also formed a team with other kids in our neighbourhood, with Arjun as the captain of the team. We allowed boys from the first grade to the third grade to become members. Exceptions were made for kindergarten boys who could play and run well. But the members had an overwhelming unanimity to not allow any girls into our team. We took this decision when Pinky and Minu wanted to join.  They even offered Rs 50 each as contribution. But still ,we did not relent.

Between you and me, I wanted the girls in our team. Pinky was such a cute little girl.  But I didn’t dare tell my friends. In hindsight, our policy seems silly. But then, in hindsight, even our team seems silly.

Soaring team spirit

I still remember when we founded our team. There were six of us — Ganesh, the plump kid from the first grade who was probably the most excited of the lot; Sunny, our classmate and one of the few students who was friends with Arjun; Prithvi, the bony second-grader who could bat and field very well; Tinku, the kindergarten kid who could floor Ganesh in any fighting contest; Arjun, our team captain and myself.

We were already a team. I mean, we played together, shared silly jokes and secrets, teased the girls, and fought each other to show off our strengths. But it sounded somewhat novel when we called it a ‘team’. We formally committed ourselves as team members by stacking our right hand palms one on top of the other, a ritual that Ganesh profusely insisted upon.

We had to choose a name for our team. Ganesh suggested Tigers, Cheetahs and a number of other feral creatures. Sunny wanted something to do with robots. Tinku wanted to name it the Sachin Team after Sachin Tendulkar, his favourite cricketer. I was thinking something about Jupiter or Saturn and other celestial entities while Arjun remained silent.

“Let us call it the Rocket Team,” Prithvi said. “It is fast and very cool man.” Everyone liked the name. Ganesh was happy that it was much faster than tigers and cheetahs.

Each of us chipped in Rs 20 to the team fund. I petitioned for three full days before my father opened his wallet, but not without a caveat — “this is the last time. Money doesn’t grow on trees. Learn that.” Of course, I had learnt that money does not grow on trees.
Otherwise I wouldn’t have been excessively obedient for three full days.

There was no dearth of ideas about spending the little sum. Ideas surfaced two a penny.

Unfortunately, real things cost a lot more. And our wish list was by no means ordinary.

“Let us buy a new bat. Our bat is very old.”

“No, let us buy wickets. I am sick of playing with trees as wickets.”

“Hey, let us buy pigeons. We’ll keep it in our homes and feed it. I know a guy who sells them for just Rs 20.”

“Pigeons! Parrots are better than pigeons. They can at least talk. Besides, the cats eat the pigeons.”

“No Parrots! No pigeons! If you buy parrots or pigeons, I want my money back.”

See what I mean? Absurdly similar to the tussles in the higher echelons of power — where the finance minister must carefully cut his revenue-pie to increase investment, control inflation, reduce joblessness and above all, to keep the Communists happy. The funny part is that we successfully devised a way to solve our puzzle — something that the higher offices invariably fail to do. We decided to have a team captain. The captain would then decide on how to cut our revenue-pie.

The captain’s choice was not so easy. But we did agree upon choosing the captain in the most objective manner — by the show of strength, literally! It was decided that every member would have to fight every other member and the kid with most wins would become the captain. Ganesh and Tinku vehemently protested saying that it would put them at a disadvantage because they were juniors. But their pleas were quickly quashed since Sunny, Arjun and myself, the third-grade triumvirate, staunchly supported it.

All the fights were over in a matter of minutes. The results were not very surprising. 

Ganesh lost all his fights and went home crying. But we knew he would come back because if anyone in the team was the most enthusiastic about it, it was Ganesh. Tinku won his fight against Ganesh and lost all others. But Tinku was a brave kid and took it quite well. He was evey cheering at the other fights. I lost three of my fights — to Prithvi, Sunny and Arjun. I was ashamed of losing to Prithvi, the second grader. But the kid was lightning fast and before I knew it, I was on the ground while Prithvi was sitting on me, pounding, with his rock-hard fists.

But Prithvi lost out to both Sunny and Arjun. His fight against Sunny was probably the best and certainly the longest fight of the day. It went on for about three full minutes. It was really close and could have gone in anyone’s favour. But Sunny finally got the better of his opponent owing to his bigger size. But in the end, it was Arjun’s day. He clearly dominated the entire proceedings. There was not much contest in his fights. The opponents easily submitted to Arjun’s formidable arms. Even Sunny could not last more than minute.

Everyone was satisfied with the outcome of the result. It was a fair contest and a worthy victor was chosen. Even Ganesh cheerfully congratulated Arjun, having forgotten the bruises and pains that he incurred the previous evening.

We now had a captain. A captain, who could choose between bats and wickets and parrots and pigeons. But we did fix the tenure of the newly chose captain for just one month. This would give a fair opportunity for the others to challenge the incumbent for a fresh duel. Now, you must grant that our rotational policy was quite sophisticated. I know, I know, one month might seem too short a tenure. Even Arjun haggled about that.  In fact, he didn’t want to be disturbed for the next six months. But when the rest of us tenaciously stuck to the one-month policy, the captain finally surrendered his unreasonable demand. Anyway, Arjun was confident that he could easily defend his title in one month’s time. I must say, it was bit presumptuous on his part.

But in all probability, nobody had foreseen his discharge from captaincy in just 30 days.

Arjun was almost assured of a second term by a ‘thumping victory’, had it not been for the latest entrant into the Rocket team. His name was Samarth (which means capable), a third-grader (but he attended a different school), whose family had just moved into our neighbourhood. We all looked up to him, literally and figuratively! I mean, he was a very tall boy for a third-grader, who latently concealed enormous energy in his lanky arms and legs. Not only that,he also housed a number of winsome qualities inside him that made him the most popular Rocket within no time. And did I mention his ascendancy to the captaincy? Arjun was half-defeated when he threw a challenge in his usual self-assured manner. Not surprisingly, the fight was reduced to a triviality, with Samarth clocking it in under a minute.

Change of guard

I must admit that everyone was a little gratified with the change of guard. Well, almost everyone.

One person who wasn’t too enthused with the new captain was the ex-captain. He was disgruntled, not just because he was defeated, but more so because Samarth received a much better treatment from the other boys, something that was totally alien when he was captain. Arjun’s suspicious was indeed dead-on. The team members were quite happy under their new leader. And, why wouldn’t they be?  Samarth’s style of functioning was diametric to that of Arjun’s. Samarth federated the decision-making process (by the way, everyone generously contributed another Rs 20), something that was devoid during Arjun’s time. But Arjun wasn’t interested in mutely watching this humiliation. He was determined to right this wrong. And this time, the cosmic forces willingly conspired with him.

It was our Social Studies class in school. Our teacher introduced us to this new concept called Democracy. ‘Government by the people, of the people and for the people.’ She quoted Lincoln, the Granddaddy of individual rights. “In democracy, people elect their governments through a voting process,” she said. “Indian Constitution guarantees voting rights to both men and women.” Ah! Voting process! It rang a bell in my head. I had seen my parents vote during the election day. Even I used to accompany them to the polling booth, and the election officer would ink-mark my right index finger like everyone else. But he wouldn’t give me the sheet of paper that contained strange pictures and symbols. My parents used to get that paper. They would then stamp one of those pictures in a secretive manner by going behind some makeshift partition, as though they were writing a test and somebody would copy them, and they finally dropped it in a metal-box.

Lincoln’s seven-score old definition rang a bell in Arjun’s head too. Ah! Democracy! That would be his answer, his weapon! What couldn’t be won could instead be spun! His face produced an unconscious hint of a smile.

Arjun brought forth his new grand voting idea before Sunny and me. We quickly rejected it saying that voting should remain only in textbooks. But Arjun did not give up.  He came to me personally and said something, something which made me say yes to his devious proposal. He offered to show me his paper in the coming math test. And I, in the eagerness to right my wrongs in arithmetic, committed my biggest wrong. Yes, yes, I am as guilty as he is. You must know that I would give anything to go back and refuse his offer. But it was too late, my third-grade-self had willingly accepted the bait.

Arjun’s plan went on to the next stage — to convince Ganesh and Tinku, the first-grader and the KG-kid, the weakest links — to accept his idea. He fluently managed to raise their hopes that they too could become the chiefs only through elections. The little kids caved in. They cannot be blamed. They had previously expressed their reservations against the use of physical power as the means to select the boss.

But perhaps nobody had expected him to pull off the finale of his plan with such brilliance — to include Pinky and Minu as members. It was not so easy. At first it was met with cold reception from all comers. So he decided to take one small step at a time. He first lectured Ganesh and Tinku based on what the teacher had taught, but in his own paraphrased manner — “Rocket Constitution must guarantee voting rights to both boys and girls.” Besides, he also made Pinky and Minu each pay Rs 50 as entry fee. This made even Prithvi, the lanky second-grader, to relent on his fixation. Also, he somehow had a hunch that I wouldn’t sincerely oppose their entry. And so it happened. Pinky and Minu were now officially, the latest Rockets. They too supported an electoral selection. The other members remained helplessly dumbfounded.

The change was now official. From this point of time, everything was official! The selection for the next Rocket Team’s captain would indeed be through an official election. Arjun was now an official candidate, with the cricket bat as his official symbol.  Samarth was also an official captainship hopeful. He proudly wielded his symbol — a car that seemed more like an SUV.

Perhaps the only unofficial entity in this entirely official process was poor Ganesh. He too had thrown his bat into the ring, although no one had endorsed his candidature. He carried a Black Panther poster, his mascot. The candidates zealously campaigned to woo the voters. Arjun promised more team funds and more equipment. Samarth promised to devolve the decision-making process. And Ganesh simply repeated what the other two had said.

The election procedure too was minutely precise. We had a cardboard ballot box to drop the ballot sheets. The ballot sheets contained hand-drawn sketches or cutout pictures of the official symbols. We, the official voters, were supposed to check mark beside our selected symbol. We also used black felt-pens to pen-mark the right index fingers of the voters. The only difference was that we did not allow the candidates to vote. We knew too well where those votes would go! Everything went on with a clockwork precision. All the others eagerly cast their ballots, choosing their favourite symbols, while the candidates anxiously waited for their results.

The official results were out. Samarth’s car had run out of gas with just two votes. 

Ganesh’s panther scared the voters off and ended up hunting just one vote. But the bat was in top form scoring three votes.

Who did I vote for?  Let me put it this way, I voted for the wrong candidate. The other voters at least exercised their choice. Sunny and Prithvi voted for Samarth. Tinku liked the Panther. The girls gratefully chose Arjun’s Bat, for having given them the entry.

But I, I was fatefully condemned to make the wrong choice. And that was the third grade — the beginning.

Arjun returned to power after a month-long hiatus. He had deftly managed a Coup D’etat, ironically through a democratic process.

I must again, bring the reader’s attention to the irrefutable connection between Arjun’s destiny with that of his mythological counterpart’s. The bow-wielding mythological Arjun could not stomach the fact that Ekalavya, a boy from a lower birth, had mastered superior archery skills just by attentively observing Arjun’s Guru. But Arjun got even with his antagonist by forcing his Guru to accept Ekalavya’s right thumb as Gurudakshina (tuition fee).

Statistically, the election outcome must produce equal number of good and bad leaders.

Statistically, I should have voted for the right guy at least half the time. But then, statistically we should have seen aliens by now. Now you know why I am a cynical grouse.

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