The ballot and the by-way
Once, I was chased through the streets of Chennai by a film star with a loudspeaker. The star? The great actress of yesteryear Vyjayanthimala Bali. The reason? She wanted my vote.
It was election time in India, and Bali—luminous dancing and singing star of ’50s and ’60s Bombay cinema—was a candidate from the South Chennai constituency where I lived. I was coming home on my bicycle. She was in the flatbed of a truck, waving to gawkers in the merciless sun while a loudspeaker blared out slogans. As it happened, her van made every turn I made. I turned left, the van turned left. I turned right, it turned right. You can see why I felt chased, even if Bali wasn’t really chasing me personally.
I have been chased as a voter here in the United States too, but, alas, not through the streets in the way Vyjyanthimala did. Here, it is boastful pamphlets in the mailbox, pleading robocalls just as you sit down to dinner, and eager signholders waving to you on street corners as you zip by in your car.
Pundits are fond of intoning on news shows that India is the largest democracy in the world and the U.S. the most powerful, but that is only part of the story. If they are democracies, they are of very different kinds. And nowhere is this difference more visible than in the street during that festival of people power we call elections.
In India, politics fills the street in a manner quite unlike in the United States. Street culture in India—as anyone who has visited the country can attest—is a far different thing. An Indian street is controlled chaos—a riot of sound and color and smell unmatched anywhere in the U.S. Even the streets of New York City, the most Indian of American cities, is nothing like a street in Chennai or Mumbai. The Indian street is part thoroughfare, part retail space, and part venue for public gatherings of all kinds.
Such is the street into which politics comes pouring during elections in India—with colorful posters on every available surface, cutouts and billboards that tower into the sky, loudspeakers blaring music and political slogans, marches, rallies and more. Such is the street in which the Indian politician sets out to meet her voter. The culture of this street is why an Indian politician can do what no American politician can.
Indian election campaigns, like American ones, are fought on multiple fronts, not just in the street. The television screen is as important to Indian elections as it is to American ones. But it is in the street that the differences in political culture between the two countries become most dramatically evident.
The U.S. has two parties, mostly. India has many more—several national parties and a host of regional ones. These parties, which range across the political spectrum, are one important reason for the sheer public spectacle of Indian elections. Each one of these parties has a campaign to run at election time. Each has its own organization geared to get supporters into the street. Each has its own election symbol meant to decorate as many walls as possible. In short, each is intent on filling the street with its festive presence as best it can. Not surprisingly, the political competition for the street is fierce, sometimes too fierce.
Election campaigns in India start in the street, live in the street and end in the street. The same tumultuous street in which the campaign was fought is the space in which victory is celebrated.
Of course, elections are not all festivity and good-natured campaigning. Where there are winners, there are also losers. And there are clashes. Violence too can fill the street in an Indian election campaign. Supporters of rival candidates can come into conflict that may even turn deadly. Unfortunately, this too is a part of the street in a season of elections.
The spectacle of the street during elections provides an apt visual metaphor for Indian politics. Politics in India, the world’s largest democracy, is populist politics. It depends on the regular mobilization of vast numbers of people in the democratic rituals of campaigning and voting. The Indian street is the stage for many of these rituals.
Populism is political, but it has no politics; by that I mean that it cannot be said beforehand, in a predetermined way, that populism is left or right, good or bad. Gandhi was a populist, and so was Hitler. Political spectacle—whether the pomp and circumstance of a presidential inauguration in Washington, D. C., or the authoritarian menace of a Nazi rally as captured on film long ago by Leni Riefenstahl—has always been riveting. The spectacle of the Indian street in election season—perhaps less staged, more chaotic—too is riveting in its own way.
We shouldn’t forget that the Indian street during elections is also an actual, physical place. As a very real political space, the street is both the complement and the opposite, the veiling and the unveiling, of the mythic smoke-filled room where political operatives cut deals in secret. We can learn much about Indian politics by attending to the Indian street—but we can’t learn everything.