I sit down to read the Indian Express and come across a headline that says: “Bombay Municipal Corporation claims robots not clearing British-era drainage efficiently.” I am struck by one thought: I have never heard of a better way to describe India in a single sentence.
One of the biggest things clogging up my country is the tedium of parliamentary democracy. A billion Indian people are entitled to vote and about 900 million have just done so, making it the largest franchise in human history. And possibly also the funniest and craziest – one that will give me, as a comic, a lifetime of material. The Election Commission of India deserves a Nobel prize. I don’t know how they get so many people to vote, largely peacefully and in a phased manner that began last month, when I can’t get one Indian person, namely my plumber, to show up at one place – my house – at a specific time.
There’s a rule that no voter should have to travel more than 2km to a polling booth. So in this chaotic, densely populated country, a whole election team had to venture into the Gir Forest in the state of Gujarat, dodging herds of Asiatic lions, to set up a booth for the gent who lives inside the forest in complete seclusion. Yes, one man. There’s always a 100% turnout.
Banana v ceiling fan
We’ve got more than 11 million people working for the election, with 2.3m voting machines and 543 winnable seats. Oh, and there are a whopping 2,000 parties. Why so many? Well, if you don’t get a choice between the Stay Awake party (a great aim), the Peaceful Life party (an even greater aim), and the Ministerial Abolition party (self-explanatory), democracy clearly suffers.
Also, you don’t actually vote for a party by name – you vote for a symbol, a hangover from when most of the country was illiterate. So this crucial exercise in democracy chiefly hangs between a picture of a lotus (BJP, the party in power) and a hand (Congress, the main opposition). Someone once tried to explain to me what a lotus has to do with the BJP manifesto, but it sounded as if he’d been given a lotus and a massively popular party with rightwing leanings and told to somehow connect the two.
Smaller parties have far more interesting symbols, from a banana to a car to a ceiling fan, all highly desirable assets. I asked a friend why the Socialist Society party had a bicycle as its symbol and he replied: “To get away from the scene of a crime.” When I laughed, he said he wasn’t joking.
Cleaning up the system is a frequent theme. The Common Man party, in power in New Delhi, has a broom, to sweep away corruption. Meanwhile, Vijayprakash Kondekar, a resident of Pune and a one-man party, remains undeterred by his 24 previous election losses. He has campaigned on foot, dressed as a holy man, pushing a shopping trolley bearing a placard that reads: “Vote for the boot!” That’s his symbol, presumably a reference to kicking out corruption, but it could also refer to the amount of footwear his campaign goes through.
What could go wrong? Well, in Uttar Pradesh, a guy voted for the wrong symbol – the lotus instead of the elephant, symbol of the Majority People’s party – and cut off his finger, so ashamed was he at what he had done. The Election Commission website has a list of symbols still available: I found pliers, a drill, a cricket bat, a noodle bowl, a cauliflower and a green chilli. All viable movements just waiting to happen. If I started one, it would be the Cricket Bat party – smashing other parties out of the ground.
The Bollywood hero vote
In the past, speeches were so badly delivered, and from so far away, that sweating audiences were left wondering if the speaker had had a stroke. Today, parties hire actors, celebrities and performers and field them as candidates, knowing they’ll be able to work a crowd. Noted Bollywood actor Sunny Deol had a famous movie finale where he ripped up a hand-pump, one of those steel water pipes bored into the earth, and started beating the bad guys with it. Now he’s campaigning for the ruling party, carrying an actual hand-pump everywhere he speaks, just to remind people of his great scene.
If someone faces criminal charges and is a political candidate, they aren’t immediately disqualified, unless there’s an actual conviction. About 20% of our candidates have a pending criminal charge – and a study found that it doubles the chances of winning. Logical. If I knew my MP had murdered someone for not voting for him, I would definitely press crossbow in the booth, or whatever symbol he had chosen.
Alleged criminals running for office can certainly be inconvenient. In Uttar Pradesh’s Ghosi district, a candidate is missing. He was charged with a bunch of crimes before the election, his anticipatory bail was rejected, so he campaigned and absconded. In 1996, the candidate who won this constituency was in jail for a sugar scam when the results were declared. So some could say he’s only honouring the past.
Fourteen elephants’ worth of drugs
Lots of people wonder how, in the Indian summer, politicians manage to draw thousands of people who stand for hours in 42-degree heat. The answer is they don’t. Audiences are brought in by bus with the promise of a packet of food, tea, a fee and sometimes even booze. In some states, audiences get a delicious biryani. As a comedian, I’d never thought of actually purchasing an audience.
This strategy can also be extended to purchasing votes. The Election Commission recently put out some ads asking the public not to vote in exchange for cash, alcohol, drugs, gold and mobile top-ups. Which is a shame because I could have done with some of those things. The news channel India Today recently made this revelation: “The quantity of narcotics seized during 2019 election is nearly equal to the weight of 14 adult male Asiatic elephants.” I have no idea who lined the two things up for a comparison. Perhaps some of the seized narcotics had been consumed.
In India, comedy doesn’t require imagination. You just wake up, read the news and half your job is done.
Modi: friend of crocodiles
Our immensely popular prime minister, Narendra Modi, is arguably now more showman than politician. He has a Bollywood biopic, in which he single-handedly fights Pakistan without a tube-well; a web series titled Modi: You Know the Leader But Do You Know The Man?; a comic (yes, watch out Marvel!); and a TV channel with the catchy abbreviation of his name, NaMo TV.
The comic book, which deals with his childhood adventures, is my favourite. Kid Narendra doesn’t need gamma rays, a spider bite or Stark Industries to be great. He is just great. A great student, a great son, a great citizen. He saves a bird that falls in love with him. He’s a devout temple-goer, a patriotic caterer to soldiers, even a unifier of reptile families. Yes, while fearlessly retrieving a cricket ball from a lake, Kid Narendra finds a crocodile and brings it home to his mum, only to be told the animal might be missing its mum. The comic’s creator, Jignesh Gandhi, is, you may not be surprised to learn, a big fan of the PM. “I just wanted to make something that would sell,” he said of the comic. Amen.
Modi tells us he’s a team player, even though he refers to himself in the third person, like a Roman emperor. A slew of TV news channels have been offering hard-hitting scrutiny of him, asking tough questions. Is Modi Superman? How is Modi so great? How does he work so hard for India and never sleep? Does he carry a wallet? Does he like mangoes?
Winston Churchill thought Indian democracy wouldn’t last 10 minutes. But we’re still here, about 10 times larger, somehow voting in a free and fair manner, amid an orgy of chaos that is everyday India. Churchill would be confounded. So are we. Finally, something Churchill and Indians can agree on.