Looking to stay on top of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections? Here’s a list of 12 election pages from Indian news sites to get you started (we will be back with more of such soon).
My heart is touched when the world wakes up at the sight of the rising sun
and I get reminded of the days when King Chera’s flag flew high on the Himalayan peaks
– Lyrics from Anbe Vaa (1966)
I wasn’t around in 1966, but as a child growing up in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, I have watched Anbe Vaa (Come Darling) many, many times. And like thousands of my generation, and the generation before, I enjoyed it immensely.
I just could not figure out though why the hero, the unparalleled M Gopalan Ramachandran, was singing such a song in a romantic comedy. True the film was set in Simla, so there was cause to look to the Himalayas. But why was he interested so much in the rising sun? And why on earth was he wearing that red-and-black striped jacket all the time?
It was much later that I came to understand that MGR was the face of Tamil Nadu’s major political party, the Dravida Munettra Kazhagam. The rising sun was its party symbol, and its flag had red-and-black stripes. And MGR made sure all his films carried signs of his political stance. He propagated the philosophy of C N Annadurai, the founder of DMK, through his films. MGR was the DMK’s face till he left the party to start the Anna Dravida Munettra Kazhagam in the 1970s.
Coming from a family of ardent MGR fans, I grew up watching pretty much all MGR movies. More to the point, I got to witness the kind of sway he held over his followers. My grandfather, who became spellbound when MGR appeared on the silver screen, was one among the millions of die-hard MGR followers, and he remained a loyal ADMK man to his death.
Such was the charisma of MGR. He used his immense popularity as a movie star to ascend the political ladder and become chief minister of the movie-crazy Tamil Nadu. That action was not without consequence. It led many Tamil actors to attempt the same feat, with varying levels of success, to the point that Tamil politics and films are inexorably intertwined in a way seldom seen elsewhere.
But wait, was it MGR who used films for political gains? Or was it politics that used MGR to mobilise masses?
And why is that the Tamils are so susceptible to charm of the movie stars?
Arts and drama have always been part of the Tamil culture. For instance, the therukoothu, the street theatre that depicted stories from the Indian epics, is a way of life for the Tamils, dating back to the Sangam period of 3rd and 4th century AD. Cinema replaces such ancient art forms, and the Tamils, who have always enjoyed such entertainment immensely, have transferred their adulation from the heroes of old to the heroes of the silver screen.
The DMK was one of the first parties to realise the potential movies held for politics, and act on it in a significant manner through MGR and his films. It was the DMK, under the leadership of Annadurai, that took film seriously as a vehicle of political mobilisation.
An excellent orator, writer and a theatre artist, Annadurai himself was part of the film fraternity. He debuted as a screen writer in 1948 with the film Nallathambi. The film was against the Zamindari system, and Annadurai went on to script many films such as Vellaikari, Rangoon Radha, and Or Iravu, all of which had the ideas of self-respect, women’s rights, and anti-Braminism. There were other movie stars — S S Rajendran and Shivaji Ganesan, to name two — who believed in Annadurai’s ideas and joined him.
“Their films introduced symbols and references to the DMK, and the party rode the rising popularity of cinema,” writes Professor Robert L Hardgrave in his paper Politics and the film in Tamil Nadu. “Film artists brought glamour and electoral support to the DMK, and actors graced the platforms of party rallies.”
The strategy attracted scorn from other mainstream politicians initially. Erik Barnouw and S Krishnawamy write in their book Indian Film how K Kamaraj, who was then president of the Congress Party, scoffed at the idea: “How can there be government by actors?”
Unfortunately for Kamaraj, there did come about government — governments, actually — by actors. Shivaji Ganesan was the first to rise to fame and become the face of DMK. But he did not stay with the party for long. He went on to join the Congress, and always preferred to keep his movies and politics separate.
It was then that MGR became the face of DMK. All his films propagated DMK ideas. Dialogue and songs were carefully crafted to hint at the political stance of the actor and promote the party among the masses. In Vivasayi (Farmer) 1967, for example, MGR sings: ‘There might be many flags of many parties in the country, but the only flag that can fly high is the flag of prosperity’. When he sings about the flag of prosperity, the DMK flag is shown in the background.
Aroor Das, who penned scripts for many MGR films, has written about how particular the actor was that all his movies was pro-DMK and nothing his character did hurt the sentiments of the party. And this is evident in movies such as Neethikku Thalain Vangu, Sirithu Vazha Vendum, Meenava Nanban, and Maduraiyay Meeta Sundarapandi.
MGR, S S Rajendran and Shivaji Ganesan were all actors who rose to fame with the support of DMK. DMK used films intelligently to reach the masses. This set an example to the future generation of actors. People of Tamil Nadu have been tuned to watch films as a part of political propaganda. Today we have a number of actors-turned-politicians. Vijayakanth, Sarathkumar and Karthik are good examples.
News of actors joining politics is common in Tamil newspapers. It seems to have become a tradition of the state. Recently Nirmala, a contemporary of J Jayalalithaa, the present chief minister who herself has donned the female lead in more than 20 MGR movies, joined the All India Anna Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam. Actors like Kushboo, Vadivelu, and Radhika have campaigned for different parties.
Tamil Nadu has seen a total of 10 chief ministers since Independence. Of the 10, five have been from the film industry: C N Annadurai, M Karunanidhi, MGR, V N Annadurai and J Jayalalithaa.
Politics and films are two branches of the same tree in Tamil Nadu. Years of enculturation have primed the masses to identify an actor who wants to be the future leader of the state from the dialogue he or she delivers in films. Elsewhere in India, there are film stars like Jaya Bachchan, Jayaprada, and Shatrughan Sinha who are active in politics. But the number of stars who enter politics in Tamil Nadu is higher. That is the tradition the Dravidian parties have created.
Kamaraj was wrong. This is the state where you can have government by actors.
Manolakshmi Pandiarajan is a doctoral candidate at the University of Madras, Chennai.
Illustration: Safa Tharib
Nagender Chindam is, by his description, a “normal guy”. An average Non-Resident Indian living an unexceptional life in the town of Milton Keynes, 72 km northwest of London.
In January 2014, though, the Chindam did something exceptional: he went on a three-day hunger strike in central London, protesting the Indian government’s failure to introduce absentee voting for NRIs.
Absentee voting is something the 32-year-old IT consultant has been fighting for in the last two years. In 2012, he had co-founded the NGO Pravasi Bharat to campaign for postal and online voting rights for Indian citizens living abroad. The hunger strike was a step-up from his earlier activism on this front. For Chindam, who says he cannot “go more than a few hours without rice”, it was quite a challenge.
Originally from Hyderabad, Chindam has worked in the UK as an IT consultant since 2009. He says his campaign is inspired by the peaceful protests of Mahatma Gandhi. At the time of this interview, Chindam was in Hyderabad to press his legal challenge against the Indian government. He might be running out of time, but Chindam hopes he will be able to cast his vote for the Lok Sabha elections from UK when voting opens. Excerpts from an interview recorded on Skype:
You made headlines in January with your protest in Tavistock Square in London. Why does the issue of absentee voting matter so much to you?
In any democracy voting is important. The future of the country depends on whom we elect, their policies. In January we took a bigger step. That was our last option. We’ve been struggling for two years. We started with writing petitions, collecting some signatures, creating online petitions, and then we demonstrated in London in front of the [Indian] High Commission. Since we haven’t got any response, after a couple of months we marched in London from Tavistock Square to Indian High Commission building. We marched in huge numbers.
We were concerned about India even though we are living abroad. After the march we thought we’d receive a reply. Unfortunately we didn’t get any reply from officials in India. Then we approached the Supreme Court of India in February 2013. We have full faith in justice system, but things are a bit slow because of the number of cases the honourable court deals with here. It might take another one year or so [for the case to be heard].
Why we thought it was important at this juncture is that we have general elections. So we thought we have to raise our voice stronger. We’ve been following all peaceful methods available in a democracy, and we have been following in the footsteps of Mahatma. We are very small compared to Mahatma Gandhi but we have been trying to follow his methodology. So first we did demonstrations, then we did march, then we approached justice, and the final step was to go for a fast.
So it’s basically some kind of bigger step. Three days staying hungry for a person like me who cannot live without rice for a couple of hours. So it was a kind of daring decision. But fortunately three days with the support of our members and all our supporters around the world and their messages, I was able to fast for three days, I was on water. And that sent some kind of strong signals on how much concerned we were about our nation even though we live abroad.
Were you surprised at the level of support you got for your action?
I was really surprised because when we started we were just a couple of guys and it started growing, growing and growing. And in January when I fasted I received messages from around the world. People staying in Dubai, Middle East, people staying in America, Canada, they sent messages to Pravasi Bharat. And there are certain encouraging messages like one person who was staying in Netherlands. He’s an Indian. He is about 75 years old, and in 1970s itself he raised his voice. He discussed with the government and he sent proposals, but it hasn’t gone far. He started appreciating us. So those kinds of words encouraged us a lot. Honestly, I am totally surprised because I am just a normal guy like anyone, just doing day-to-day work, living on my salary.
Every democracy in the world, including developing nations like Pakistan, Indonesia, and the developed nationals like Canada, America, UK, Germany, all these democratic nations have provided an absentee ballot for citizens abroad. They accepted this fact, this is a globalised world, people are moving across the world because of profession or studies or further scientific advancements. Everything is not available under one country, so people are moving across. So these major countries including Pakistan have realised absentee ballot is something genuine.
Being the largest democratic nation, we talk about democracy in our day-to-day life and we the citizens of India are staying abroad for a reason and we would like to come back. It’s not that everyone who goes abroad will stay there forever. We are not talking about the people who are settling there or who are taking the British passport. We are only talking about the people who hold Indian citizenship.
India being such a scientifically advanced country it can send a rocket to Mars, and it cannot provide an absentee ballot or just a simple software? It’s possible, but somewhere something is lacking.
What are you doing in India at the moment?
I was here for our second hearing in Supreme Court, because in the first hearing the honourable court has issued notices, in second hearing court has asked explanation from the Election Commissioner. I thought on second hearing we would get some concrete explanation. If they don’t want to do, I thought we’d get the reasons why they can’t do. Or if they want to do, how and when they’ll implement. With that great hope I came here. The thing is the Election Commission has asked for four further weeks of time to file a proper response. So it’s been about four, five weeks. So we’ll be getting another hearing soon so we are hoping for the best.
Are you hopeful about the campaign?
I am a very positive person. There are elections soon. If we miss [this now], we have to wait five more years. I have hopes of Supreme Court. The district-wide elections [in Andhra Pradesh], there was a case pending in Supreme Court for long. The Supreme Court just last week asked the Election Commission to conduct these elections before the general elections. And Election Commission came back and said it would be very tough because they are preparing for the general election. It would be very tough, it involves lots of effort. But the court said no, no, no, we are capable, these are Supreme Court orders, you have to do it by this date. So within next two weeks they are conducting elections in the state of Andhra Pradesh.
Do you see any opposition inside India to absentee voting – people who think that if you don’t live in India you should not have the right to vote?
I have experienced this when I’m talking about voting rights. Some people say “you guys already left the country”. Most of the people are under the impression that “you guys are not anymore bothered about the nation, that’s the reason why you guys left”.
But it’s not that we have left the country because we have chosen to live somewhere else. Yes, we respect the country where we are living, we learn from the country where we are living, we learn the lifestyle, we respect the culture. At the same time we have gone there for a purpose. For example myself, I have gone there for professional advancement. And there are people who go there for getting master’s degree. Some people who go just for scientific advancement.
There are big names like Laxmi Mittal, who still holds a passport and he is one of the richest guys in Europe. Amartya Sen, he is a Nobel laureate. He still holds an Indian passport. He came back here, he contribute a lot. So I explained, but sometimes, yeah, I feel some kind of opposition as well.
Are you planning more events for your cause in London?
We have done most of the peaceful things we can do. Only thing we’ve left now is indefinite fast. That will not be our option at the moment. I am hoping positive hopes that government will implements this soon. So we’ve no need to do more fasts or more demonstrations. I hope the government has received our message. The only thing now is they need to act. I don’t think there is other pressurising required. Our case is in court. We will wait for a couple of hearings and we are hoping for the best outcome from the Supreme Court.
You can imagine it’s not a simple thing. [NRIs have] 10 million votes, 15,000 votes per MP constituency. There are certain constituencies who will win by about 5,000 or 6,000 votes. So if we win this case, these 15,000 votes will play crucial roles in at least 50 of MP constituencies, which can change the dynamics of the entire political system. So it’s a big project and it’s not a small thing if we achieve. I hope so. I’m praying to God we’ll get there.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. A version of this appeared on rediff.com.
My name is Reba. I think I am 37.
The village I was born in, a few hours out of Kolkata, is one of those places nobody knows about. You don’t come to know about it even when you walk through the middle of it. And it’s for that reason that I have no voter card, no ration card, pretty much nothing. So I have never voted.
I have four children. Three daughters and a son. Today was a difficult day. While cutting vegetables at one of the nine houses I work in as a maid, I cut my hand. A nasty gash. I poured water on it and pressed it with a damp cloth until it stopped bleeding. But by the time I reached the third house of the day, the strong phenyl and acid combination I used to mop the floor had infected my wound. I blinked back tears and carried on. After 13 hours of work, with on 15 minutes for lunch, I got home. Instead of collapsing on my bed, I repeated my actions of the day – wash, sweep, clean, dust, cook. This time I was working for my home, my four children, my husband.
Yes, I can see how a lot of you will look at me as soon as I say I have not voted. My daughters — I’ve educated them, one of them is even doing her Bachelor of Arts from Delhi University — look at me the same way. But you don’t understand. You don’t understand that I don’t live in the same world you live in.
You sit in your rooms, debating whether India ought to take a stand against the Naxalites, typing furiously into your laptops about whether or not the price of petrol is inflated. What you don’t understand is that my bicycle and I really don’t care.
I care about feeding my children, I care about helping them escape this torture I’m living through. I care about being able to smile on my deathbed and consider my life determined solely by the quality of life my children live. And nobody actually helps with that. Not one party.
It all sounds very fancy. It all sounds as if they have these grand schemes to help us, but that’s all they are: schemes. I don’t vote because even though I now have an Aadhar Card. Even though my daughters are educated and smart and talk of how important it is to vote, I’m jaded. I’ve been sidelined, ignored, forgotten by the entire political scene. So much so that I don’t ever remember being part of it.
My daughters say I cannot complain about my politicians if I don’t vote. That I can’t talk about a broken system if I don’t do anything to change it. But to me, voting for the politicians here is as useful as voting in Bangladesh – inconsequential. They make big promises, these big men, but I’m no longer affected.
Perhaps my attitude is defeatist, but you tell me this: what child is born with that attitude? We’re all born clean slates. Take something from that. Look at why I am this way. It’s because of a lifetime of disappointment.
The new generation is full of hope. The new generation is full of fire. And maybe this time I will vote. Maybe I will, not so my life gets better, I have given up all hope for that ever happening. But for the new generation. I pray the politicians won’t turn them into fragile, cynical things. I don’t know whom, I don’t know how, but I’m praying for somebody, and this time maybe I’ll do it with a ballot in my hand.
As told to Saba Sodhi in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. Reba, who requested partial anonymity, spoke in Hindi and Bengali. This interview has been translated, condensed, and edited for clarity.
Photo credit: Vishal Darse