I have pursued this Elf in five general elections until now, trying to read his feather-light footprints as they skip in dirt tracks, crawl through dark tenements without electricity, wait in front of taps that have run dry or hide in forests, hoping for guns to fall silent. My elusive quarry at election time, the Elf of Self-Respect.
A high degree of self-awareness characterises the Indian voter. Residents of Muzaffarnagar know theirs is a society torn apart by politics, that religious hatred and suspicion have destroyed the notion of Mohabbat-nagar.
They are polarised into opposing camps of Jat vs Muslim, yet at the same time troubled with communal hatred. On voting day they will vote on the dictates of their inner demons but also organise sadhbhavna melas in future if it makes political sense.
The Dalit community in Sarfabad seems to have accepted that for them the Ambedkarite mission of a Dalit counter-argument to Hinduism has failed.
Dalits here are eager to be co-opted in the Hindu fold, to unite under the Hindu banner, even though the wounds of discrimination persist.
Today sanskritisation co-exists with upward mobility and Dalit women in western Uttar Pradesh vie with upper castes to celebrate karva chauth and bhai dooj, the Karan Johar-authenticated markers of social status.
In urban centres, the Narendra Modi personality cult looms large.
There is even qualified approval among young voters for a ‘soft dictator’. Yet away from somewhat apocalyptic predictions of an India uniformly awash in feverish Hindu majoritarianism, and while recognising that yes, Hindu mobilisation is at a peak at the moment, it is also worth noting that for many voters, Modi is simply a pragmatic cost-benefit calculation from the choices available.
The Elf of Self-Respect is a complex creature. He responds well to those who bother to reach out to him. He shies away at any hint of condescension. He may vote according to a personality cult yet recognises the pitfalls of towering cults. From Amritsar to Bangalore, there’s a conviction that the Modi personality cult is a result of the failures of the UPA.
But iconoclasm runs deep in this land of ours where the Bhakti thinkers frontally challenged even priestly privileges.
In every locality I visited there is an embrace yet also a certain discomfort with the Modi cult. There are fears that such a towering personality may not be able to get on with others, that a one-man show may undermine the samvidhan, even destroy his party.
I heard views on Indian personality cults. Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were cults who dwarfed their parties.
Personality cults are created by crises, and built by the mass media industry. Personality cults have novelty because they promise simplistic solutions, but they crash if they can’t bring real change.
Modi’s untiring campaign and determination to reach the last voter, wins approval. But there’s also recognition that what is a novelty today may become old hat tomorrow. “Aaj Modi hai, kal koi aur hoga,” a voter in Sarfabad told me.
The voter is hardly as brainwashed as analysts tend to think they are.
One trend is unmistakable: Disillusionment and disappointment with Arvind Kejriwal and AAP. Hopes that blazed brightly were dashed almost overnight when Kejriwal spurned the task of shouldering government responsibility. Why didn’t AAP stay on and deliver governance? I heard this question repeatedly.
Self-respect is to the fore in the way the voter views the Congress too. The continuing benevolent condescension and noblesse oblige of Congress leaders, of ‘giving’ right to health and ‘giving’ right to education and Rahul Gandhi’s well meaning claims to be ‘your’ sipahi seem to not cut ice.
In Varanasi, they ask why Priyanka Gandhi wears a sari to meet ‘villagers’ when she wears pants in Delhi.
One political figure though evokes respect. One woman’s solitary determination wins a salaam of appreciation even as she fades metaphorically into the sunset. Sonia Gandhi’s firm stewardship of the Congress, her fierce attachment to family, has won many a voter’s heart, even though there is so little inclination to vote for the UPA.
Variables exist together; one doesn’t wash away the other. There is hunger for change and Modi but also warmth for Sonia Gandhi.
There is a forward-looking drive towards newness. Yet at the same time there is widespread moral panic about the loss of cultural values from the winds of globalisation. Youth voters reject caste as a voting principle, yet say they do not approve of inter-caste marriage.
Women voters say they want parties to fight for the safety of women, but at the same time there is little disapproval of the feudal bahu-beti trend in politics.
Today the voter is intensely pragmatic, and voting primarily for economic advancement and for jobs, jobs and jobs. In the list of priorities, jobs and development come first and second, secularism is a distant third.
Hardcore Hindutva mobilisation exists, but generally the focus of anger is against the old-style ‘ghisa-pita’ secularism of the Mulayam Singh Yadav type, not in most cases, against the Muslim.
I meet the Elf of Self-Respect every time I travel on the election trail. I call him the elf because he or she is an unknown quantity, the unknown voter, and the quiet creature whose voice the helicopter-borne netas hardly hear. But on voting day he roars out his message and opts for the politician who — among the choices available — gives him the one attribute he seeks: Self-Respect.
Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN The views expressed by the author are personal