May Carnival

Adapted from Ajmal, Z. (DD.MM.YY)

No electoral exercise is complete without the counting of votes.

Indeed, it might be said that the counting of votes and declaration of the winning candidate is probably the most important part of the electoral process. Such was the case across the 8000-odd Gram Panchayats of the State during the last week of May when the counting of votes was scheduled. In each of the Panchayats, voters had cast their ballots for a total six candidates each. According to the Daily News and Analysis newspaper, 6.1 million voters were anticipated to have exercised their franchise in order to elect 28,000-odd representatives to the various Panchayat institutions across the State.  The excitement across the State, including in Sargana was palpable.  As counting day approached, the prospects of the different candidates became a topic of discussion in the village’s various chai kiosks, squares and alleys. Supporters of different candidates weighed out the possibilities for wins and losses, while most people hoped that the eventual winners would dedicate their time and efforts to improving the condition of people’s lives. 

I have been hanging out with Jaydeep during the last few days. We went to the administrative block headquarters the day before counting was scheduled. The officials responsible for counting told us that they aimed to complete the counting of four Panchayats each day. Their plan was to count up the votes for two Panchayats during the first half of the day (from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and repeat for two further Panchayats during the second half (2 p.m. to 7 p.m.). 

The counting day for Sargana, May 29, was no less than a carnival. I have never observed anything like this before, so I felt like I was in the middle of a fair. Someone commented, “this is the festival of democracy, so you should expect to be in a far”. I could not help but agree.

Indeed, the carnivalesque quality of the event was evident from the number of temporary kiosks that had mushroomed all around the counting office. More than half of these kiosks were selling betel leaves and nuts to the hundreds of people who had come to observe first-hand the proceedings. Other kiosks stocked coloured powder for supporters of the successful candidates to celebrate with. Yet others displayed garlands of artificial flowers, although a few kiosks did have marigold garlands. Additionally, of course, some enterprising people had also set up food stalls to satiate the hunger of the thousands of onlookers who had gathered around the place since the morning. Popular items on sale were gol gappas (spherical crisps filled with flavoured water, tamarind, mint and chickpeas), litti-chokha (dough ball based on whole wheat flour stuffed with chickpea accompanied by mashed potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant), samosas (fried pastry stuffed with spiced potatoes, lentils and sometimes cottage cheese) and puris (unleavened deep fried flour bread). A few brave entrepreneurs experimented with selling chow mein.  Ice-creams, ice-lollies and cold drinks provided a huge respite from the heat. 

The counting process underway inside the block headquarters, into which only nominated representatives of the different candidates were allowed. Barricades had been set up outside the office to manage the movement of people into and away from the office. A voice over a loudspeaker proclaimed the names of the winners from time to time, resulting in either jubilations among the people outside if their candidates had won or wails of despair if they had lost. As might be expected, the shouts of jubilation prevailed over the wails of despair. Victors’ supporters could be seen hugging one another, showering one another with color and screaming victorious slogans of zindabad (long live…). Gradually, the unsuccessful candidates and their committed supporters left the area, leaving it open for the successful candidates and their supporters. Not one face was untouched by colour, such was the enthusiasm of the victors. 

I came back later that evening to find more results announced and more merry-making. The results of the neighbouring Panchayat had been announced. Jitan Mandal, who had started his political career as an agricultural labourers affiliated with the Communist Part of India (Marxist/ Leninist- Liberation) had won. He beat the scion of a well-established landed family, affiliated with the Congress Party, to the post. The entire ground in front of the counting office heaved with excitement as Mandal’s supporters lifted him up in a sense of collective triumph. Now it was Sargana’s turn.

Sargana Gram Panchayat is comprised of twenty wards: there were twenty election results to be declared and twenty candidates who would defeat their contestants and win. As the election results were being announced, the winners erupted in triumph, while their defeated opponents melted away. However, the big result was still awaited, adding to the heavy suspense that hung in the air: the winner of the post of the President of the Gram Panchayat. Jaydeep, whom I accompanied to the counting office, appeared confident of his wife’s victory. A labourer who combines agricultural work with masonry in both Bihar and Punjab, Jaydeep was sure his wife Kamla would win the support of the village’s poor and historically oppressed communities. However, as counting progressed, I realised that Jaydeep had retreated to a shop in the distance, the look of disappointment unmistakable. A little later, he left.

Dipa Rajak was declared the winner. She and her husband Shalu Rajak own a shop in Sargana bazaar where they sell household items. Her father-in-law is a clerk in a nearby police station. Although Dipa Rajak won only 17% of the popular vote, the fragmented political landscape of Sargana undoubtedly helped her. Rajak appears to have been favoured by members of the ‘untouchable’ and ‘intermediary’ caste communities who were impressed with his entrepreneurial abilities: that he could set up shop in the bazaar and compete with the established shopkeepers, almost all of whom were ‘high status’ families. The other contestant who owns a shop along with her husband was perceived to be too pliable by the ‘high status’ landlord and shopkeeper families of the region: nevertheless, she came a close second, polling 15% of the vote. The working class votes appear to have been split between at least nine candidates from labour backgrounds (including Kamla Rishi). Together, these candidates polled nearly 33% of the vote, but stiff electoral competition between them under India’s First Past the Post system meant they could be easily picked off by the better organised candidates. 

On the face of it, the hopes of people such as Jaydeep Rishi have been dashed. One sentence each about Ram Dev Mandal and Dayanand Yadav’s opinions about the winners and the elections in general But they do not have the luxury to mourn the defeat of their favoured candidates. Rather, they get on with their lives and labours, even as the victors settle in to their new positions of power and prestige. 

Stay tuned for more.
The original blog post in Hindi is available here: 
http://centreforequitystudies.org/category/life-on-the-move