Khamosh is an Urdu term for silence and taciturnity. Yesterday, Lucknow went to the polls for the ongoing UP state elections - and while the papers today report a record turnout of 53% in my constituency (Lucknow central), that is exactly what the elections felt like around here: they were a silent and tacit affair, both audibly and visibly (as the picture of an otherwise busy intersection demonstrates, taken yesterday). Given the image of UP politics as the core of Indian democracy - vibrant, rowdy, and exorbitant - this is really surprising. What happened? This post tries to give a first, unfiltered response.

On election day itself, the answer is simple: nothing much happened, really. Yes, people went to their polling booth, politicians took a break, police officers enjoyed the sun, children let their kites fly high - and scholars like me were busy being puzzled. More puzzling than the khamosh polling day were, however, the silent weeks ahead. Of course, the media was full of buzz, with all the indecisive factors in this election: will Mayawati stay in office? Most likely not. Will the Samajwadi Party return or fade away forever? Most likely it will return. Is there a Rahul Gandhi factor? Yes. What is it? No idea. Similarly: is there a Anna Hazare factor? Yes. What is it? Nobody knows. And on and on and on...

But on the streets of Lucknow, we saw very few banners, the cracking loudspeaker cars of earlier Indian elections remained absent with the exception of the last few days only, and many people I spoke to couldn't be bothered. Candidates roamed around on buffaloes rather than on a proper UP Neta's string of at least 40 SUVs. There were not really any scandals, if we discount the funny episode about Salman Khurshid and Muslim reservation (for details of what happened see here, here and here). And after a couple of weeks into this poll "battle", I began to wonder: why do I not see anything of what I expected to see in a UP political contest? Why stems my knowledge exclusively from the media? And why do even candidates I spoke to seem so business-as-usual?

Struck by this irony, I began to ask people, I spoke at length with a Rickshaw puller on my way home, chatted with neighbours, and cross-questioned other observers of Lucknow and UP at large. The Rickshaw puller was as confused as I am, and confided that he does not even know who the candidates are this time (he doesn't read any papers - he can't - and there were only few posters to guide him). The observers felt incapable of making any predictions - not just because of the complicated array of factor alluded to earlier, but also because they found it hard to gauge actual power balances in the absence of visible power plays on the streets. And my middle-class neighbours? Many of them were just happy - politics is a nuisance in their eyes, anyway.1

But then on the other hand: record voter turnout! Politicized youngsters! Excited media! Web 2.0 campaigning for the first time! These elections were clearly not less intense - but they were quite different, nonetheless: they were khamoshi, tacit, invisibly and rarely audible.2 To pick up newspaper terminology: they were "clean" at last. One reason for this state of affairs is of course the election commission's tough stance and this year's model code of conduct, which even I broke once. This time, the EC did not only try to curb criminal practices such as vote buying, but also censored political ideas which it considers out of tune with their very own "clear politics" drive. But what puzzles me is why this toughened stance - which simply bans most of the many creative ways in which Indian politicians used to campaign in the past - worked. Why did all the political bigwigs bow down and follow the ban? Why this time, but not earlier? Or in other words: how did the EC become so immensely powerful?

A partial and preliminary answer to this question can be derived, I would like to suggest, by contextualizing the role of the EC within wider middle class politics, judicial activism, and "cleanliness" in the wake of the Anna Hazare movement (on which I can only repeatedly recommend Pankaj Mishra's piece in the New York Review of Books). Maybe we need to understand the leaders' and parties' unparalleled allegiance to the EC as an expression of their deep insecurity after the surprising upsurge of India against Corruption? Maybe they just didn't want to risk to insist on actual politics in the context of last year's events?

Like India against Corruption - which took a good cause to unhealthy extremes - the EC is however in danger, I would argue, to turn their "clean elections" agenda into an abolishion of politics per se: if one is not allowed to let the power plays come out, if one is not even allowed to make promises to the electorate or stick to one's own agenda, how exactly is democracy supposed to function? Of course one wants to do away with uncomfortable political opinions (casteism, communalism, you name it) - but will these cease to exist and cease to impact elections just because they are banned? All that newspapers have to say now about the various candidates is their monthly income and wether they have a criminal record or not - important aspects, no doubt, but not as important as the question what these candidates want and how they want to get there.

The wider consequence of this imposed khamoshi thus seems to be a solid depoliticization of elections. And since issues don't disappear just because they are banned, the consequence is also to drive "dirty politics" underground.3 If Anna Hazare remained silent on wider issues of political economy by focussing solely on corruption (see my critique here), seeing politics as a nuisance to be cleaned up arguably ignores what politics are all about: power play!

But then, contradictions remain nonetheless - above all in the form of the highest turnout for state elections in Lucknow since decades. Khamoshi seemed to have worked in re-politicizing people - quite contrary to my argument. A puzzling dialectic, which renders this blog post somewhat tentative - I would thus be very happy for comments below on how to sort this out further. How did the EC become so powerful? And what are the consequences thereof?

  • 1. Of course, there are exceptions - both principled and self-interested ones - but "nuisance" nonetheless remained the most frequent term for elections I heard around here...
  • 2. At least in Lucknow, I should be careful not to overstate my point.
  • 3. The latter fact was quite evident in recent Shia-Sunni clashes in old Lucknow, for instance - of which everybody knew they were related to elections, but nobody - certainly no journalist - pointed out how precisely the link works...