In a time driven by numbers, vertical integration, big data and single character driven narratives, the small story appears to be a diversion, a frivolous waste of time, extras obscuring the hero's journey.
Many a time in these elections, we have heard anchors and politicians intone that "the narrative has changed." Coverage in this Lok Sabha election, more than ever, focused on a central oppositional storyline, loaded with moral significance, just like the last season of Game of Thrones. It denied us the mythic polyphony of small stories featuring the seemingly eccentric no-hoper independent candidates, who gleefully take the promise of democracy at face value.
In 2014, on the other hand, I remember being sent off to Chennai, for a story on the Indian Lovers Party, one man committed to the cause of inter-caste or community unions. I also remember reading about Gaurav Sharma, who campaigned dressed as Spiderman, crawling over people's windows (a questionable approach, I agree).
But it's true. The narrative has changed. In the first Indian election in 1951, 533 independent candidates contested of whom an impressive 37 were elected. The 1957 election saw even more elected at 42. The number of independents grew steadily, peaking in 1996 to 10,636, but the number of these elected declined even more steadily. Since the 1998 elections, the number of independent candidates has dwindled to under 4,000 and the number elected to single digit figures.
In a time driven by numbers, vertical integration, big data and single character driven narratives, the small story appears to be a diversion, a frivolous waste of time, extras obscuring the hero's journey. Or, as the Law Commission of India recommended in its 255th report, independent candidates should be barred from contesting elections because "they are either not serious or contest elections just to confuse the voters."
Seriousness is subjective. For instance, Prema Ram of Nagaur who contested this year knowing he would lose, said he did so because it would give him visibility and increase his chances of winning in local elections. Another, because, well he wanted to be famous. But then, helloji, by the way, Sunny Deol ghar pe hain?
Consider the story of an independent candidate who did win in this Lok Sabha election: Sumalatha Ambareesh defeated Nikhil Kumaraswamy, grandson of Deve Gowda, by 1,25,622 votes. The wife of late Kannada film icon MH Ambareesh (elected three times on a Congress ticket), Sumalatha wanted to contest at the behest of his followers and because she wanted to "carry forward his legacy." She was refused a ticket and decided to contest as an independent. Soon after, she found three more Sumalathas were suddenly contesting as independents from the same constituency, a 'coincidence' even the GOT writers would not resort to (probably). That could confuse voters, because it was intended to. It didn't, however. Behind this small story is the bigger story of the politics of identity, gender, power and prejudice that underlie the politics of elections.
The boiling down of narratives into unconfusing choices — less swayamvara where anyone can compete, more matrimonial column, where we may all be nicely categorised and kept in our place by caste, salary and orientation — reframes choice as limited, not freely unlimited, and is, as we have seen, effective. The small story, the sub-subplot has different symbolic and actual effects and tells us what other desires and choices might be possible. Always worth remembering that today's ruling party, in 1984, had only two seats. Main stories often begin as subplots, as Bran Stark could also tell us.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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