A reporter's tryst with elections

The election season is back in Karnataka, as elsewhere in the country. And so is the great Indian summer. It is also time to hear cacophony of all types. There is a free flow of outrageous comments on India’s security ranging from the Ambanis to corruption to price rise.

How easy or difficult is it for a political reporter to keep tabs on developments during elections? Well, as a reporter, I will say it is more challenging than anything. It is easier, in a way, compared with gathering information in the past. Now, the task for a print reporter is to compete with the visual media which keeps screaming about breaking news 24/7 and the quiet Internet news flows. In addition to covering all the major news that is given by these two media, a print reporter has the task of giving a third dimension or give a perspective to news which is already in the public domain.

The scene was totally different when I began my career in the ‘90s. At that time an easy and speedy communication system was not there. Sending stories to the office through the modem used to be an uphill task and photographs had to be delivered personally or by post.

My first election assignment was to cover Tumkur Lok Sabha as well as Assembly elections which took place simultaneously. I was a junior reporter who was yet to understand the subtle nuances of politics. The Tumkur constituency is vast, touching three districts. It required not less than two days just to touch the peripherals of the Assembly segments. The bad, dusty roads did not make travel joyful.

At that time, Tumkur town had only one decent hotel. I can confidently say that I was the lone woman to hire a room in the hotel. Our group’s vernacular daily Prajavani’s correspondent in Tumkur was seasoned journalist Gangadhar Mudaliar. I had teamed up with him to cover the electioneering. The first suggestion from him to me was not to stay in hotels. His argument was that too many mari pudaris (junior politicians) make hotels as their adda (hangouts) and a woman may not feel comfortable and safe. He was right. His family was graceful enough to accommodate me in their house for a couple of days. Even today, Tumkur lacks a good lodge where women can feel safe. All major towns around Bangalore in fact lack good standard lodging facility. But dabhas and resorts with bars have mushroomed.

When my sojourn with Mudaliar and our paper circulation agent Hrishi began, I realised that getting bottled drinking water in villages was next to impossible. So, we stocked sufficient number of bottles before leaving the town. But now you go to any village, you do get bottled water, aerated and fruit juice packs of various brands, though at times it could be fake brands. Drinking packaged water used to be considered as an urban fashion. We now get to see people purchasing water from Shudda Neeru Ghataka (clean water points) in villages. It has become a necessity to look for safe water.

Getting a clean toilet on a highway or in a hotel was next to impossible. I used to request politicians to allow me to use the facility in their houses. Today too while travelling in towns and villages I face the same problem because the situation is ditto. Smelly waterless toilets in hotels, government offices and Inspection bunglows have become a permanent feature.The situation is worse in North Karnataka. Recently I was in Belgaum to cover the legislature session. The Information Department had organised a day’s visit to Kittur, the proud tourist place in Bailahongala taluk. The government is promoting this historical place as a ‘must visit’ place to tourists. It has the ruins of the fort where Rani Chennamma lived and fought the Britishers.

The town is a crowded one. In the entire town, there is not a single hotel which has a clean toilet. I am ready to bet on this issue. But there is no dearth for tasty mirchi masala snacks being sold in all hotels. The worst is the Kittur fort area. The toilet in the premises was locked as it had no water facility. Bailahongala MLA D B Inamdar says he is still looking for funds to drill a borewell in the fort area.

Back to my Tumkur election tour. At that time, the only way to know the candidates was to meet them personally. There was no invasion of cell phone or onslaught of private TV channels. If I had to see a candidate, I had to be at his or her doorstep before 7 or 8 am . Candidates are always on a fast track and no one sits at home after breakfast. I remember catching up with the then BJP MP S S Mallikarjunaiah and Congress leader G S Basavaraj even before they were through their morning ablutions! In Bangalore traffic, I can never promise myself of meeting anyone in time anytime of the day.

Today, I can easily get connected to politicians even if they are candidates, over cell phone. If a message is left with their gunman or media co-ordinator, chances of getting connected is not difficult. Usually politicians do receive calls while they are traveling.

Another challenge I had faced was to understand the caste equations and how it mattered in elections. Forget identifying sub-sects under a caste, I did not even know that there are so many castes till I travelled in Tumkur. It is said that not less than 116 sub-castes are classified under Vokkaliga community. I went into a tizzy when Mudaliar used identify the vote banks of candidates based on the sub-sect like Hallikar Vokkaliga, Gangadkar Vokkaliga, Das Vokkaliga, Marasu Vokkaliga and the list used to go on. For me, at that time, there was only one Vokkaliga – that was H D Deve Gowda.

In Tumkur, Lingayats or Veerashivas too are a major vote bank. There are Ganiga Lingayat, Jangama, Banajiga, Sadara, Panchamashali, Aradhya, Reddy etc etc. Sub-sects do matter while exercising franchise when two candidates from a same caste are in the fray, I was told. I was thoroughly confused. I could not identify a candidate beyond his party and caste. I do remember translating into English what Mudaliar had written in his poll reports about the caste and sub-caste permutations and combinations. But now I am better. I structure my stories after making caste calculations where it is essential. Factoring caste to assess poll outcomes is something which has definitely not changed over the decades.

I used to find candidates more frank, humane and approachable at that time. One incident which left me dumb was when Gubbi Congress candidate and MLA Shivananjappa presumed that he had to pay bribes to get coverage. In the all-men team of PV-DH, I was the only lady. When I stepped into his house, he thought I was the daughter of Hrishi who was getting trained as a reporter. When my identity was established, he held talks in hush-hush with Hrishi to find whether I was ready to accept Rs 5,000. As I had bombarded him with questions, he must have assumed that I was after something. Hrishi did not even dare to tell me till the end of my trip how the bribe was offered to me behind my back or how he could have raised money in my name! Shivananjappa is no more.

Now, no candidate will muster courage to offer currency notes with small denominations to media persons/houses. Candidates wield control over TV channels and newspapers, some of which appear to be ready to compromise with media ethics. Buying air time and space is not uncommon.

After a hectic tour, when our team landed in Tumkur town, it was around 10 pm . We were all hungry because the entire day we did not have food as we were mostly moving in remote villages to interact with voters. And, the town had gone to sleep. Then Mudliar suggested that we should meet and eat in Sogadu Shivanna’s house. He was BJP candidate for the Tumkur MLA seat. Left with no choice, I followed my colleague. Anna Dasoha (mass feeding) was on in his house. But for a non-garlic eater like me, the food did not appeal. Even butter milk was laced with garlic. At that time he was the owner of a paper called Sogadu. Now it is defunct. I found him humble without craving for publicity. He has remained so over the years. But he did not grow into an influential leader.

The situation is better now in B towns. Till late in the evenings, I do get to see hotels open. If I am staying in a decent hotel, I prefer food being served to my room. Because, if I get into the dining room, then I stick out – I will be the lone woman to venture out for food late in the evenings. A handful of women journalists are covering politics in Karnataka.Before the Election Commission imposed reasonable restrictions on campaigning, a festival atmosphere prevailed over the streets during electioneering. It was easy to make out the acrobatics of the candidates to win. It was easy to file colour copies or mood stories. But today, the campaign is mostly happening on the Net. One thing has remained unchanged – padayatras by candidates. Burning calories and getting tanned can’t be avoided by candidates however super-rich they are. Of course, there are exceptions. Mass leaders such as Yeddyurappa, Deve Gowda, Mallikarjun Kharge and the likes conduct only road shows and address rallies.
Like in the past, even today villagers expect candidates to say namaskara seeking votes. “Aa vayya vote kelkondu barali… aamele nodova..’, meaning ‘let that person come seeking votes and we will see,’ is the common refrain among villagers if they are asked to specify their choice of candidates. So, trekking by politicians goes on and so also conning.I wish the election cycle changes and they are held in November-December so that as a reporter, I can trek more!

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