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Opinion: The summer of reckoning

  • As the country votes in seven interminable phases, everything seems strangely still
  • Most social media timelines nowadays are a mix of dissent videos, weather updates and people trying to talk about concrete issues

‘Do The Right Thing’ is about a Brooklyn neighbourhood’s simmering racial tension, which culminates in tragedy on a summer day.
‘Do The Right Thing’ is about a Brooklyn neighbourhood’s simmering racial tension, which culminates in tragedy on a summer day.

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My throat feels dry as I scan the day’s news stories for any clue that might unlock the mystery of how nearly 900 million Indians will vote. For every survey that predicts victory for one side, there’s another that says it won’t be so easy. Despite the constant chattering on social media (Twitter recorded 45.6 million election-linked tweets in the month to the first polling day on 11 April), everything seems strangely still as we vote in seven interminable phases for 543 constituencies and then wait for the results on 23 May.

Above looms the mushroom cloud of fake news streaming on our smartphones, its toxic smoke emanating the following warning: “Nothing Happened in This Country for 70 Years.” My vote will go to nationalism, says yet another first-time young voter to a TV channel.

Indians are using question-answer platform Quora like it’s a therapy tool. “If the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) loses in 2019, will Modi sell Pakora to set an example to young Indians?” The support for the prime minister is overwhelming in the responses to this post.

My favourite possible explanation about how we could vote was published in this newspaper last week. Maybe voters are disappointed with the current political establishment but lie when asked about their true preferences, economics professor Shruti Rajagopalan wrote in Mint: “…there seems to be little benefit and significant costs in openly disagreeing with the dominant social narrative, even if their private preferences are not aligned with it.”

Two BJP politicians have issued threats about the consequences of not voting for their party. While campaigning for a colleague, according to a news website BJP MLA Ramesh Katara went so far to say that, “Modi sahab has installed cameras this time.... Who voted for the BJP, and who voted for the Congress, it will be seen. Aadhaar card and all other cards have your photo now, if there are fewer votes from your booth then he (Modi) will come to know who did not cast vote and then you will not get jobs.”

The parallel world continues to function normally, seemingly unaware of India’s make-or-break electoral drama. A former army major who organizes dream motorcycle rides messages. “I’m on a 10-day road trip to Bhutan from 24 April and have one last slot to fill. Anyone wants to jump in?” I am tempted to tell the husband I want to ride pillion on his Enfield, but I already know he will look up distractedly from his work for a second and then look back.

On Twitter, analogies have been drawn between the Seven Kingdoms vs Night King battle and the mahagathbandhan (a motley combine of political parties) taking on the BJP and its allies. More than members of any other political party, BJP leaders such as Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Maneka Gandhi, K.S. Eshwarappa, Ranjeet Bahadur Srivastava, Pankaja Munde and P.S. Sreedharan Pillai have made horribly divisive comments. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has ignored some of these speeches but banned the Congress party’s ad campaign “Chowkidar Chor Hai” in Madhya Pradesh. The whole nation will need treatment for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) after this government’s term is done, a physics graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay quips on my timeline.

My almost nine-year-old daughter is firmly in summer holiday mood and mode. I am bored, she says to me every day. She can’t get enough of the swimming pool. Black salt is cooling, I read, and make a note to add it to her curd rice.

The husband is able to juggle his daughter and work seemingly smoothly, but I am distracted. I can’t stop replaying that long hot summer day when racial tensions kept pace with the rising mercury until it all exploded in a brutal climax. Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do The Right Thing seems so apt even three decades later. I want to scream its title to everyone I meet. If you are inspired to watch, follow it up with Lee’s latest, BlacKkKlansman, a hilarious and harrowing exploration of America’s past and present relationship with hate.

I am not the only one referencing films. One journalist who never rants on Twitter suddenly starts sharing how she saw Schindler’s List and can’t stop thinking about the history and literature professor who is termed “not essential” at the concentration camp; the maid who is killed even though she follows the rules; and Schindler’s failed attempt at convincing a murderous commander that “mercy is power”.

For minorities, the fear is real and present everywhere. One of my favourite feminist authors conducts her own poll. “A little food for macabre thought: God willing the apocalypse will not come but if you are in a minority (race/religion) and find yourself in danger, how many of your friends (any faith/race) can you count on to risk their lives to protect you?”

My social media accounts are an even mix of dissent videos, summer weather updates and people trying to bring the narrative back to concrete issues such as unemployment. Five million men have lost their jobs since demonetization, according to a report by the Azim Premji University’s Centre for Sustainable Employment. But maybe I am living in a world of my creation? One 2018 study of over 2.7 billion tweets between 2009-16 found that Twitter echo chambers are very real when it comes to political affiliation.

My daughter has begun writing a book of summer essays and so far the number of times I appear in it is even more abysmal than the number of female candidates standing for this election. The biggest election story around women is that the BJP has fielded terror-accused Pragya Singh Thakur from Bhopal. Based on a complaint from the Election Commission, a first information report has been lodged against her for hate speech.

My brain keeps replaying the one image that defined the Modi years for me. It was shot last July when Union minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha proudly posed with a group of men he had just garlanded. They had been convicted by a lower court for lynching Muslim coal trader Alimuddin Ansari, and then, a few months later, released on bail by the Jharkhand high court. “It’s a crime to be Muslim in India,” Ansari’s widow Mariam Khatoon told me when I met her a couple of months later in Ramgarh.

My throat feels dry as I wonder if Sinha will continue to be a minister this July.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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