Dance of democracy

A comparison

Karen Dhamija

Politics, Society and culture | South Asia

30 May 2014

Karen Dhamija explores the similarities between Indian elections and weddings.

Big fat Indian weddings are synonymous with a culture that craves extravagance when it comes to celebration. Made popular by numerous Bollywood movies, the multi-day affairs also have an uncanny resemblance to Indian elections.

Both are certainly stretched out events. The recent national election was held over 9 phases and 6 weeks. 800 million invitees, 550 million of whom turned up. The largest democratic exercise in the history of the planet. What astonishes is how much campaign stops take inspiration from a stereotypical middle class Indian wedding. A novice bystander can be forgiven for mistaking one for a couple’s lucky day.

Barat is a symbolic wedding ritual where the groom and his family and friends walk from his home (or a location near the venue for the purpose pf practicality and ever-increasing Indian waist-lines) to the wedding venue accompanied by marching bands, Bollywood tunes, fireworks, and an ensemble of song and dance. Perched on top of a pony is the groom, surrounded by relatives he probably hasn’t seen since he was twelve or at a distant cousin’s wedding. Replace the pony with a modern open top four-wheel drive and you’ve got your own campaign rally. Except of course that the youths dancing and rejoicing have been paid to be there.

The whiff of money is another smell that lingers in both settings. Proportions of it staggering. Most middle-class Indian families spend in excess of tens of millions of rupees on a wedding, mostly by the bride’s family. Families save up for years to make sure no stone is unturned (or gulab-jamun uncooked in this case) for their daughters’ fateful day. Just as society teaches parents not to think about money, parties make sure they choose candidates that can provide an endless supply in sacks of hard cash (often in actual sacks). Victory is otherwise an uphill task.

Strict spending limits do exist on paper, but it’s hard to overlook the packets of notes, encased in party paraphernalia being delivered to homes in regional towns across the sub-continent. Funnily enough, last national elections saw a candidate in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh reach out to his rivals and seek a pact to not ‘bribe’ voters. His rivals found out on the eve of the election that while they kept the promise, he himself had given little notice to it. No one was surprised when an expected close finish turned into a landslide.

The packets of money are not too dissimilar to the glitter framed envelopes especially made for wedding attendees to give to the couple on the night. A ritual loathed by all but strictly adhered to. No one wants to be the odd one out with only three figures worth of rupees in their gift. Gossip travels fast and everyone knows they were once on the receiving end and their children will be some day as well. It’s easier to follow the tide and feed the beast.

Weddings are showcased as a beacon of religious adherence. Food is all vegetarian and the date and time are decided only after lengthy consultations with the local Panditji (a priest and an astrologer). That is only if he has also made sure that the birth-charts of both the bride and the groom match, often a sticking point in Indian marriages. It’s hard to believe the country prides itself on its forward-thinking technology scene. Election campaigns are also launched and mapped after consultations with numerous astrologers. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and risk-taking has no part to play. However, both also contain an underbelly of vice under the façade of religious idealism. Alcohol is often consumed by the males in backrooms inside the wedding venues, while party-workers delivering packets of cash usually also have ‘gifts’ for the family. Alcohol for the men of the house and usually hair products for the ladies. Just don’t call it a bribe. These are usually also the times when candidates breathe a sigh of relief that children don’t have to convinced.

It probably has something to do with the culture. No other nation has thousands of festivals each year and tens of public holidays for them. It’s enough to give Western executives a heart attack. Indians are proud of their knack for celebrating and their democracy. It’s easy to complain about the colourful nature of how India goes to the polls, but fact that a country of its nature and size does go to the polls is an achievement. There are not many countries with similar characteristics which have maintained an unblemished record of letting its pupils decide its fate. Now let’s celebrate the result.

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