Short Story: Mid-term Fortunes by Paromita Goswami12 min read
Paromita Goswami’s short story is a brilliant take on Indian politics, elections and how leaders take charge of the situations to make the most of it.
EDITOR’S PICK OF THE WEEK
(As the editor’s pick for this week, this article will be available for free reading for a week)
The emergency imposed by the National Leader was lifted nearly two years after it was imposed, and the country breathed again. Immediately thereafter the general elections were announced. For the twenty-year-old Ranjan these were heady days. Poorna Kranti Dal was part of the national coalition that had fought against the emergency and presently their popularity was at a height. Ranjan was the president of the youth wing in Dongargaon Township, a member of the district team that spearheaded the campaign. Sujan Patil was their candidate against the Old Party’s sitting member Manikram Pawar. Ranjan was given the responsibility of the campaign in Dongargaon Township and Mahadev Nagar areas. These were thickly populated areas, adjacent to each other and key to winning the constituency.
Ranjan attacked the task at hand with a single-minded ferocity. He worked day and night to ensure that every booth was manned by at least ten reliable volunteers. Every night he took stock of the day’s campaign and reported to the district leaders. The candidate, Sujan Dada was impressed with his work and said so publicly more than once. This only encouraged Ranjan to work harder.
Separated by a single railway line, the Dongargaon Township and Mahadev Nagar were a study in contrast. Life in Dongargaon revolved around three cement factories, the population comprised of migrant labourers and professionals employed in the factories or in the ancillary units. This Township had been at the centre of intense politics during the emergency. The trade unions crashed overnight as members switched from the Old Party Workers’ Front to the Poorna Kranti Majdoor Union. Workers struck work, companies posted lockouts, violence erupted, and union leaders arrested. The emergency had been the political crucible for Ranjan. He had been involved in every subversive activity that had gone on inside the factories and outside. He was a known face of the Poorna Kranti Dal in the Township and once the emergency was lifted, he worked day and night to consolidate his hold.
Mahadev Nagar was the location of the old village where old-style houses quite literally clustered around the ancient Mahadev temple. Even families whose sons had found jobs elsewhere and daughters married outside met every few months. The contours of the interrelationships had developed over generations and the unseen boundaries were silently understood and accepted. Although public mingling had increased manifold, inter-caste dining was rare and inter-caste marriages were still unheard of. Each person’s social place was clearly marked by birth and was accepted without question. Internal affairs of each caste which ranged from property quarrels to marital discords were managed by the elders and caste members did not normally defy their diktats.
Unsurprisingly, each caste group in Mahadev Nagar solidified into a distinct voting bloc. The negotiations between party leaders and caste leaders started months before the actual hurly-burly of campaigning. How could the party and the candidate offer their services to the people of Mahadev Nagar? In the early days of democracy money rarely changed hands but there were many other considerations – donations to the community fund, utensils for common use, promises of public utilities, and sometimes a personal favour or two. Mahadev Nagar had, like clockwork, consistently voted for the Old Party in every election since the very first one but this time their tone was not very welcoming. The elders of Mahadev Nagar spoke politely with every leader who visited them, but the bonhomie was distinctly missing this time.
For the first time ever the candidate of the Old Party lost his seat. Sujan Patil, the candidate of the Poorna Kranti Dal won by a handsome margin. A hasty meeting was called in the national capital to discuss the nitty-gritties of government formation. Twenty-six parties had formed a coalition to oust the Old Party and now each one wanted a piece of the victory pie. A humongous cabinet was formed with a wheezing octogenarian at the helm. Less than a year passed when Sujan Patil returned from one of the coordination meetings in Delhi and called some of his close associates including Ranjan to his residence.
“Look guys, I don’t want to mince words, but this government may not complete its term. Be prepared for mid-term polls,” said Sujan toying with his glass of tea.
The men around him were silent but Ranjan spoke up, “Dada, what are you saying? It took enough trouble to dislodge those leeches and now you are saying the government will not last five years!”
“Say what you will, but I am being honest. There are fifty people talking from fifty mouths. Coalition meetings in Delhi are like a fucking fish market. People are at each other’s throats. Sab muh me ram-ram bagal mein churri! Those scoundrels will praise you on your face and drive a knife through your back!”
Things were going awry. Rumours were flying fast and thick. There was uncertainty throughout the land. Ranjan felt a surge of anger against the Poorna Kranti Dal, against all its leaders and ministers. He felt personally betrayed by these fucking idiots who were playing games in Delhi at his expense, at the expense of the thousands of volunteers who sweated for the party’s victory. In the next few months Ranjan quietly moved away from the party, away from the district committee and the netas. But he kept alive his everyday contacts with the common people and his group of volunteer friends. Together they helped this guy get a ration card, another one to find a doctor, attended every marriage and funeral.
In Delhi a public spat between senior members of the cabinet split the coalition and brought the government crashing down and as expected mid-term polls were announced. Ranjan heard the news on radio at the paan shop and decided this was the opportune time to officially resign from the Poorna Kranti Dal. The elections were coming up. Sometimes he dreamed of contesting but when did the dreams of the poor ever take flight? Ranjan was consumed by his desire to enter politics but for now he had to wait in the wings.
One day the clerk of the local girls’ school came to the tea stall where Ranjan often hung out.
“Bhaiyya, our chairperson Shivshankar Dhole Saheb wants to meet you.”
“Okay, when should I come to the school?”
“Nahi Bhaiyya, not in the school, he has asked you to come home.”
That evening Ranjan’s curiosity got the better of him and he went to Mahadev Nagar and straight to the famous sweet shop opposite the old Mahadev temple. He asked his two friends to wait outside and stepped in. He was shown into a room behind the shop. It was a large room with spotless tiled floors, pictures of gods and goddesses hanging on whitewashed walls, a large diwan on one side covered in green velvet, a tea table with beautiful ivory inlay work underneath a glass top and a couple of comfortable wooden chairs. Ranjan sipped the lemon sherbet that was offered on a tray while he waited.
He was surprised to see a woman walk in and stood up from the chair. A middle-aged woman wearing a traditional maroon navvari saree that went like a dhoti between her legs, a large kumkum bindi on her forehead. Behind her spectacles the lady had sharp intelligent eyes and her golden fish-shaped nose-pin shone over her upper lip as she smiled.
“Basa basa beta,’ she said requesting Ranjan to sit. “How are you?”
Ranjan bent in the customary way to touch her feet.
“Kaku, the school clerk had come looking for me.”
“Yes beta, unfortunately there is no one at home right now, but we can talk – you and I.”
Ranjan knew the lady in front of him – who didn’t know Sakubai? He had campaigned in this area in the previous election, spoken to her son briefly and knew everything about the family.
“Beta, I will come straight to the point,” she began, “You know our family is close to the Old Party. That is the only party we have ever voted for … since Panditji’s times. And this time the leaders have offered us the ticket… for my daughter-in-law, Mandabai…they want the women’s vote.”
Ranjan’s mind was working furiously even though his face was inscrutable. Mandabai! Of all the people! But she is a housewife…the choice shows the desperation of the Old Party…but wait they are right, she could easily fetch the women’s vote … Sakubai herself is so well-known… there’s hardly a family who has not visited her sweet shop … plus she gave land to set up the first girl’s school … plus her husband is the chairman of the school and the temple trust … plus they are one of the original families … Ranjan’s mental arithmetic revealed the compelling nature of Mandabai’s candidature. He smiled at Sakubai.
“What can I do for you, Kaku?” he asked.
“I am told you are no longer with the Poorna Kranti Dal but you have tremendous contacts in the Dongargaon Township. Can you help us gather the votes there? The Old Party is struggling you know … we need your help.”
“Kaku, I would definitely help you, but I am a poor man. You know how expensive elections are…”
“Don’t worry, beta … money will not be a problem,” assured Sakubai and Ranjan smiled.
In the days that followed Ranjan once again threw himself into the campaign, albeit for a different candidate. He converted his team of volunteers into a force to reckon with. He made sure that the banners went up and the handbills were distributed to every house. He organised the prabhat pheris and the corner meetings. He was constantly on the move throughout the day. He never had breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same place. He built up Mandabai’s image, emphasised her qualities as the good wife, the obedient daughter-in-law, the backbone of the family. She was presented as ‘your approachable sister – always by your side’.
Ranjan also became a regular visitor to the Dhole household, a part of the family’s close inner circle. He was closer to Sakubai than anyone else. He brought her the news from various parts of the constituency and always began by saying, “Sanjaya is at your service to narrate the news of Mahabharata.” This sentence always brought a smile to Sakubai’s face and no matter how worried she was, she set aside the work at hand and urgently conspired with her new confidante.
The Dhole family was not dependent on the Old Party for campaign finances – they had money to spend. And a substantive amount was spent through Ranjan. Sakubai’s son would hand him the money in the evening to make the payments for handbills, banners, public meetings, volunteer expenditure and so on. Ranjan extracted his fees for services rendered without informing either him or his mother.
On the last day of the campaign, less than forty hours before polling began, Ranjan suddenly felt the pangs of doubt. How one earth would Mandabai’s victory help anybody at all? His doubts had been planted by a visit from Manikram Pawar, who was licking his wounds at being denied the ticket this time. Furious at the high command’s decision, he had filed his nomination as an independent candidate. It was close to midnight when just outside the constituency Manikram Pawar met Ranjan in a farmhouse of a wealthy supporter.
He reasoned with Ranjan, “Ranjan Bhai, your Poorna Kranti Dal is no longer in the fray. It is a straight fight between Mandabai and me. Now, tell me what good is that woman? Does she think running the government is cooking rice in the kitchen? You and I know politics is a man’s game. She will never have any voice in Delhi and the development of our region will come to a halt. You and I have to put development above all else.” He carried on this monologue and to in order to ensure that Ranjan did not misread the urgency of the matter he pressed forward a thick envelope. Ranjan pretended not to take it at first but then in one swoop he swiftly tucked it under his kurta. He thought of another equally thick envelope hidden safely in his room. Sakubai’s son had given him a substantial amount for distribution to booth volunteers. Now he had twice the money that he needed to organise the booths. Ranjan felt powerful at that moment, and he had a decision to make. Dark clouds suddenly overshadowed the moon, and it was time for Ranjan to move on.
Last minute negotiations were completed on the night before poll day. Stealthy shadows of party volunteers slipped in and out of doors delivering money and messages. Rumours were deliberately planted to create confusions, secret signals were communicated, and plans were made and unmade.
The polling day was hectic with a million tasks to be completed. Yet Ranjan made time to meet and update Sakubai. The old lady felt vulnerable for the first time in her life. For the first time the fate of her family was in the hands of the thousands of faceless, unknown voters. Sitting at home she prayed continuously under her breath calling upon Lord Mahadev to watch over her them all. Her daughter-in-law Manda on the other hand was oddly calm as she travelled with a group of ladies. She went from booth to booth talking to voters and volunteers ensuring things were peaceful, asking the polling officers about the turnout. She knew her place was merely to carry out the wishes of her parents-in-law and husband. She had never made a public speech in her life and throughout the campaign she had limited herself to a few rote sentences delivered in a soft halting voice. She had walked door to door and spoken to every man and woman with honest sincerity. She was a farmer’s daughter; she was honest and sincere to the last bone in her body and people understood this instinctively the moment they met her. She had played her part as directed and did not care much about the outcome.
Ranjan had a very late dinner at Sakubai’s house after polling was over. He rose to depart when Manda came forward to thank him. This was the only time she had spoken to him directly. Ranjan smiled at her with folded hands. Then he bent to touch Sakubai’s feet.
“Beta, don’t forget us. You must visit me as often as you can. Elections are a momentary thing, but manuski human values are forever. We should never forget our manuski.”
Sakubai had no idea when she uttered those words that Ranjan had no intentions of not visiting her. As for Manda – he felt that he had made the right decision. The poor woman would have been miserable amongst the wolves in politics. He had done her a great service by ensuring her defeat. Let the good woman live peacefully and leave the muck of politics to the scoundrels. On the way out he met Shivshankar Saheb, Sakubai’s husband and bowed before him respectfully.
In due time, analysts wrote columns discussing the unexpected results – an independent candidate had won by a fair margin. The result was duly put down to the maturity of the Indian democracy. Ranjan remained a regular visitor and a close confidante of Sakubai. The formidable combination of her wealth and influence in Mahadev Nagar and his strong hold over the Township ensured that his political dreams sprouted wings sooner than anyone expected.
Paromita Goswami worked as a full-time grassroots organiser on issues of land, labour and forest rights. She co-edits a web portal called Vidarbha Gazette. She has previously published in Jaggery Lit, Out of Print, Himal Southasian and Kitaab International. Her academic writings have appeared in NUJS Law Review, Economic and Political Weekly, Indian Journal of Social Work and Community Development Journal.
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