1962 vs 2014: Heady, but ethical, days are long gone

Last Updated: Sat, Apr 12, 2014 02:22 hrs

One of the abiding childhood memories I have of the 1962 Lok Sabha elections is of the North Bombay constituency, in which VK Krishna Menon, the country's sitting defence minister and a close family friend, was pitted against 74-year-old Acharya Kripalani, who had not only been a previous president of the Indian National Congress but also Gandhi's close associate.

As childhood memories go, it may seem curious that a 3-year-old girl growing up in Juhu, whose world ought to have been populated by dolls and dresses, should cherish the memory of such a public and political event, but that, in fact, is the point of this column.

That election, universally believed to be the most high profile the country had ever witnessed, has remained, with its colour, chaos, vitriol, drama and histrionics, as a vivid memory, because my parents had thrown themselves into it with the passion and idealism characteristic of the people of their age.

Our home in Juhu had become one of the nerve centres of the campaign and each morning the house would be filled with party workers, posters, leaflets, intellectuals, poseurs, hangers on and sundry film stars who had come to lend their support to Menon.

Early mornings would witness our kitchen being overstretched with the preparation of cups of tea (Menon's abiding weakness), meals, glasses of water and packed snacks. And late nights would see tired, but excited Menon-supporters, including my father, unwind on our verandah with Old Monk rum, arguments and plans for the next day.

So high profile and important had this particular election become that The Sunday Standard had written, 'No political campaign in India has ever been so bitter or so remarkable for the nuances it produced'.

The reason for that in great measure was the fact that Kripalani, who had been a close colleague and friend of Menon, and had earlier endorsed many of his policies, chose to focus his campaign on attacking Menon personally.

Why am I telling you all this? I am telling you this because a few hours ago I realised just how far we have come from those heady but essentially ethical days, and what a bleak and unedifying landscape we inhabit.

This morning, in my capacity as a city diarist, I had wanted to write about a fundraiser that had taken place over the weekend for a local candidate from a new and zestful party that was challenging the two mainstream ones of the constituencies. It was to be an innocuous enough piece, about the evening's proceedings, the people who had attended and what the candidate said during the Q&A session.

However, I was dismayed when I received a personal note from one of the organisers, a powerful city figure, requesting me to keep the event under the radar.

"This was really a private event and a lot of guests that night were guaranteed that there would be no press," he had written, adding, "A lot of people are not comfortable being identified as supporters for (a legitimate) fear of backlash from the political establishment."

My dismay, of course, arose not from the request of anonymity by the supporters of the party, but from the fact that legitimate supporters of a party fear repercussions from their opponents.

When I think back on the pride and exultation with which my own parents had thrown themselves into campaigning for their candidate, without any fear or inhibition, I wonder what our own children will remember of the sorry times we find ourselves in.

Will there be a little girl who will look back at these current elections with delight and wonder?

I very much doubt so.

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