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Saturday, February 28, 2004

The Discovery or National Geographic channels regularly show us scenes of animal herding behaviour:  the impala gazelles grazing and migrating in their thousands on the African Savanna.  Or the masses of penguins gathering to raise their young on the cold, rocky shores near the tip of South America.  Now, maybe, Hyderabad should be added to the list of favourite herding sites.  Not for wild animals, but for humans.  More precisely, for human beings who can vote.

Herds of grazing animals are known as, well, herds.  Groups of flying birds are usually called flocks.  Massive congregations of voting humans are generally named ‘garjanas’, ‘bheris’ or ‘sadassus’ and like wise.

These voting humans, in their lakhs, do not come together on their own.  They are herded into Hyderabad during the election season, even from remote villages.  Local political party leaders make these people endure long journeys in jam-packed buses, trucks or trains.  Then they have to walk, stand or sit in the hot sun for hours.   After which, they have to wave hands and shout slogans praising their dearly loved party ‘generals’ (i.e. the big-league politicians) on cue from their ‘field commanders’ (the less-known and aspiring ones).  In the first place, the crowds were not attracted by prospect of long-winded speeches from bada netas!  Only the food, drink and cash along with a chance to tour Hyderabad or catch a glimpse of their favourite movie star, somehow sustain the tired and bored audience.

For the Hyderabadis, living in the state capital seems to be less of a boon and more like a curse. Many arterial traffic routes in the city are closed for the normal traffic.  Normal bus and train services are severely disrupted; thousands of passengers have to endure long delays.   During the Vijayabheri event at Parade Grounds last Sunday, even the city’s ambulance service was minimal.

What about the political parties themselves?  Any and every political group or a party worth its name attempts to hold such huge rallies as if to make a point.  It has become a one-upmanship game where they have to herd more people than their nearest political rivals.  Party managers are forced to spend disproportionately large amounts of valuable financial resources, time and thought into organizing such mega public gatherings.

It is not surprising that political parties attempt to influence the voters via these public rallies.  Such large events do have a significant impact in pepping up the party troops by giving them a sense of unity and purpose.  Massive numbers of congregating people could also create an apparent sense of popular support and raise the morale of the loyal voters.  Also, as today’s ‘Xtreme’ becomes tomorrow’s mainstream, the parties are locked in a runaway race to organize bigger and bigger rallies, only to capture the same amount of valuable media attention.

But it is very unlikely that the decisions of voters who are not allied to any one party, undecided or skeptical voters (a majority of us belong to this category) are influenced by such rallies.   Over the past couple of decades, as the voters have become more conscious of their political role, they have correspondingly raised their expectations of political leaders and parties.  As citizens, they are not attracted to such garish shows of artificial public support; as voters, their decisions are increasingly less influenced by massive public rallies.  I felt ashamed on hearing that people had to be ‘bribed’ to see even the Honourable Prime Minister address Hyderabadis last month!

All this proves only one point:  these massive, bankrolled political rallies represent the dying embers of an earlier political culture. 

What we need now are more “town hall meetings” where local residents meet with their political leaders in an open and interactive forum.  The voters, be it in the villages or in the cities, want their political parties and candidates to hear about their concerns, learn about their issues and personally witness their living standards.  In turn, the citizens want to hear these politicians clearly explain how they plan to solve their pressing issues.   New communication technologies, especially satellite TV, mobile phones and even the Internet are offering unprecedented opportunities for a candidate to reach out to large numbers of citizens in a very personalized way.  The citizen too has a wonderful chance to influence the political debate between the candidates and the parties.  I am even willing to bet that such meetings, when shown on local cable TV circuits, would have a much higher viewership rating than for some huge ‘sadassu’ held in a distant city.

The political candidates need not spend vast resources in organizing large rallies; they might be better off focusing on direct interactions with the local residents.  After listening to the citizens’ concerns carefully, they should articulate their views on all issues raised.  Not only because this is a good thing to do, but also because this has a greater potential to influence citizens and their voting patterns.  It may be surprising to many, but what is good politics is also practical politics.

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