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For whom the dhol tolls

British general elections, at the best of times, tend to be cheerless affairs: not only are the candidates themselves drab, but the very silence of the process can be a bit deafening to anyone used to the theatre of Indian campaigns. Dipankar De Sarkar writes.

india Updated: Apr 27, 2010 01:17 IST

British general elections, at the best of times, tend to be cheerless affairs: not only are the candidates themselves drab (none more so than the dour Scotsman, Gordon Brown), but the very silence of the process can be a bit deafening to anyone used to the theatre of Indian campaigns.

A series of three American-style pre-election television debates was meant to spice up things. But theatre? Let’s just say it resembles a three-hour-long serious British play full of ‘dramatic pauses.’

Pitting Labour’s Brown against David Cameron of the Conservative party and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, the debates have something of ritual British tidiness about them. The three candidates wear dark suits with single-colour ties, though a different colour on each appearance.

There are three television channels, and they take turns to air the debates. And, in an elaborate game of musical chairs, each candidate gets to stand in the centre of the stage at least once. Perhaps it is all meant to symbolise the widely-expected hung parliament.

And so it came as a welcome relief when Labour called reporters recently to cover an impromptu visit by Foreign Secretary David Miliband to the Guru Singh Sabha gurudwara in Southall, the largest Sikh temple outside India. Welcomed by a phalanx of residents of the world’s most famous Indian diaspora neighbourhood, the minister tied a bright orange patka on his head before being escorted in by local MP Virendra Sharma.

This is another time-tested ritual of the British election campaign, perhaps borrowed from India — minister makes his way to a South Asian neighbourhood, visits places of worship and tucks into a plate of hot curry; local MP gets to show off the important visitor; minister trundles off back to Whitehall, happily assured of Asian votes.

But the great thing about this process is that it brings a tiny bit of noise and colour into the campaign. As Miliband left the gurudwara, having taken its delicious langar, a group of Punjabi dhol players appeared from nowhere and struck up a boisterous rhythm.

And infectious it was too. Now all of a sudden, members of Miliband’s team (also in orange patkas) were walking in a strange and bouncy gait — somewhere halfway between the full-on Bhangra dance and a diffident shake of the leg.

Sharma was beaming, skipping in order to keep up with the tall Miliband who strode youthfully at the head of the joyous group.

The young Punjabi dhol players led the procession, dancing and bounding their way past smiling shopkeepers as the familiar theatre of an Indian campaign briefly roused a corner of suburban London.

In the last few days before polling, loudspeakers will give the campaign the ultimate Indian touch — clearly, a carefully calibrated raising of pitch (and volume).

“But we’re always careful when entering non-Indian streets,” said Southall Labour veteran Ranjit Dheer. “They don’t like too much noise there.”