In the cacophony that marks the election season, there are many voices that are permanently drowned out. Skim through any daily newspaper. The news that predominates is based on statements by a slew of politicians. They are calling each other names – from “speed breaker”, the term used by Narendra Modi for Mamata Banerjee, to her reverse compliment calling him “expiry babu”.
But elections are not just about what politicians say or do. They are about what voters think. Not just the obvious loudmouths who rush to give their opinions when they spot a journalist, but those who remain hidden, afraid of saying anything, and most often ignored.
Elections give journalists a great chance to step outside their usual beats and get a sense of what is going on in the country. In the days before the internet, 24-hour television news and polls, print journalists were sent out to cover key constituencies as also the poorer regions of India, where politicians only appear before elections.
The exchanges with ordinary people recharged our batteries, gave us precious insights into and understanding about how people live and survive, and provided us the tools to separate the reality from the political bombast. Not all that we gathered featured in our stories. But we came back from our election journeys wiser and better informed about the state of the nation.
Seeking out the views of the marginalised always takes more work. And among them I would include poor women. They do not volunteer an opinion. It takes a little time to make them comfortable enough to speak. Often, they only speak when the men are not around. Yet, given the growing recognition that women are now voting enthusiastically and in large numbers, their opinions cannot be ignored.
Unfortunately, election coverage has been reduced to “he said, she said, they said” – a string of reports about politicians and their opinions. The more extreme they are, the more likely they are to draw attention and be given prominence.
In the welter of such reports, it is not easy to locate the stories that give you a sense of what ordinary people are thinking and saying. Not just about the elections and who they will vote for. But about what life is like for them, whether things are improving, getting worse or staying stagnant, and what they hope for the future.
If you look hard enough, you do find such stories even if they are buried under a pile of acrimonious election rhetoric.
Problem of governance
Take a report in Scroll.in by Manu Moudgil. Originally published on the website Mongabay, it quotes the views of Punjab’s agricultural workers and farmers. It reminds us that in one of India’s most prosperous states, 919 farmers and agricultural workers committed suicide between April 2017 and January 2019. That works out to just over 41 a month or more than one every day. Yet, this is a state where the average monthly income of a farmer is Rs 23,133 as compared to the national average of Rs 8,931.
There is a serious problem of governance in India that goes beyond which party wields power; it appears to be a chronic deficiency in those who govern to even begin to understand the problem. Moudgil’s report brings this out clearly – how the policy to help farmers with loans completely misses those who need it the most. We need such insights as citizens and voters to determine what kind of government we want and need. This is the information the media ought to be providing during this election season.
Then there are villages and communities that no one bothers to contact. One such village is in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu. SP Sarvanan reports in The Hindu that no politician has ever set foot in Malliamman Durgham village in the Bhavani Sagar Assembly segment of The Nilgiris parliamentary constituency. In spite of this, and the absence of a motorable road, the 421 voters of this village have exercised their right to vote in every single election.
The report quotes a 70-year-old villager: “We have been living here for many generations, cultivating millets, guava and jackfruit. No candidate from any political party has visited our hamlet seeking votes in any election...Though no development work has been carried out, we continue to vote.” Think about it. No development work, and yet they vote. Why, one wonders, when those who govern their lives do not even acknowledge their existence?
Listening to women
In this election, the media, particularly digital platforms, are paying some attention to women voters. Neha Dixit, writing for The Wire, spoke to over 69 women, mostly Dalit or Adivasi, who are midday meal cooks in Bihar. There are 2,48,000 midday meal cooks in the state. They cook for 1.2 crore children in 71,000 primary and middle schools. Yet, for work that takes up to eight hours, they are paid just Rs 37 a day, the report notes, adding up to Rs 1,250 a month.
Worse still, the government refuses to even acknowledge this is real work. The media should be asking political parties, even as they release their manifestos, whether they recognise the paid and unpaid work that lakhs of poor women do across this country. The midday meal cooks are literally saving lakhs of poor children from starvation by doing this daily task of cooking hot meals for them.
Incidentally, the majority of them still cook on the traditional wood-fired chulha, inhaling poisonous gases and suffering the health consequences. Where is the promise to substitute these primitive chulhas with clean fuel? These are questions that rarely make it to the vociferous election debates in the media.
Scroll.in has also started a series, Half the Vote, that brings out women’s voices.
Instead of just asking the obvious question, “Who will you vote for this time?”, these stories illustrate the richness that awaits journalists who try and have a conversation with the people they meet on the issues that matter to them. Such stories provide us an insight into what is really going on in this vast and diverse country, stories that will remain relevant even after the last vote has been counted.
As far as traditional election reporting goes, Arunabh Saikia’s report in Scroll.in about Arunachal Pradesh is a standout. It appeared before the April 3 accusation by the Congress that Rs 1.8 crores in cash had been seized from Chief Minister Pema Khandu’s convoy on the way to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election rally in the state.
Saikia’s report is the most explicit account I have read about cash for votes in a state with only two members of parliament. And no one is coy about it. One candidate told him, “Last time, I wanted to contest, so I did a recce. The rate was Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 per vote and there are around 17,000 to 18,000 voters, so adding the cost of mithuns and pigs for the feasts, it came to around Rs 25 crore to Rs 30 crore. I decided not to contest, it was beyond me.” A mithun, a local bovine, apparently costs more than Rs 50,000. So far the mithun is not an endangered species. But at this rate, if it continues to be the currency to buy votes, it could face extinction.
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