Tuesday, March 24, 2009

In the spirit of things

General Elections: 2009


By Shevlin Sebastian

In August, 2008, there was a hartal in Ernakulam. The Castlerock bar, near the South bridge, in Kochi was half-closed. At noon, bartender Roy Mathew stood with a few waiters at the first floor window and watched a political party take out a procession.

“Suddenly, two men detached themselves from the crowd, came to the bar, and demanded two bottles of brandy,” says Roy. “My colleague packed it and asked for the payment.”

One party worker said, “You have the audacity to ask for money. Today is a bandh and you have kept the bar open!” The bartender insisted on the cash. The worker took out his mobile and summoned other party members.

“Soon, there were 15 people inside the bar creating a ruckus,” says Roy. The manager had to be called, and the inevitable happened in the face of such hooliganism: the workers were allowed to take the bottles away without paying for it. “That’s politics for you in Kerala,” says Roy, with a sardonic grin.

It’s 4 p.m. on a Tuesday and there are about ten men present in the bar. You can barely make them out in the semi-darkness. A TV mounted on the wall is blaring Malayalam film songs. Roy looks relaxed, since the evening rush has yet to start.

The majority of the clientele, he says, is in the 35 - 50 year age bracket, and nearly all of them are professionals or businessmen or workers.

“The clients don’t talk much about politics, but when they do, the general consensus is that the LDF will be wiped out in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections,” he says.

Roy remembers a group of office-goers condemning the CPI(M). “They said the party is paying scant attention to its constituents like the RSP and the CPI,” says Roy. “Instead, they are courting the PDP and other hardline outfits.”

This catering to the Muslim vote bank and the haggling over the Ponnani seat between the CPI(M) and CPI will have repercussions, the men said.

Amongst the customers are members of all the major political parties. “The CPI(M) workers know their party is going to fare poorly,” says Roy. “But they are unable to voice their anger at party meetings because they will be immediately hauled up in front of a disciplinary committee. Everybody knows what has happened to Abdulakutty.” (The Kannur MP was expelled from the party for praising the economic policies of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi).

The Congress workers are happy, says Roy, to see the infighting between the constituents of the LDF. On the other hand, the BJP office-bearers keep a low profile.

As for Roy’s views, he says, “The politicians in power are reaping the benefits, while the rest of us suffer in silence. There are so many funds which can be used for the benefit of the people, but that rarely happens.”

He says the politicians help those who belong to their party, enrich themselves and a few friends, and that is it. “I have voted for these people for years together, but, really, what have we got in return? Nothing!”

But that will not deter Roy from voting next month. “I want to exercise my right as an Indian citizen,” he says.

Suddenly, a young man, with bloodshot eyes, comes up to Roy, hugs him, and says, “I like you a lot.” Then he staggers away to the exit.

So what is his advice to voters? “Look at the different politicians and see who can do the most good for the constituency. Don’t vote for the party, but for the most meritorious individual.”

After this optimistic assertion, Roy, trained by his job to be hospitable, says, “Sir, would you like to have a peg?”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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