I have a relatively superficial understanding of Indian politics. I know that the BJP is the Hindu Nationalist party currently in power at the national level, but that it has not been in control of any of the southern states where the Congress party and the Communist parties have generally prevailed. I know that the political system is corrupt and that politicians are known to be involved in bribery and fraud of various kinds. But this post is not about the electoral winners and losers — that I am not in a position to explain. This post is about what its like to live through the election season in Karnataka as an outsider.
For weeks in advance of last Saturday’s election, there were groups of people marching daily through the neighborhood that we overlook. They would drum, chant, speak through loudspeakers, and knock on doors (not our door on the 16th floor, though). There were frequent cars or trucks driving around slowly, blasting loud pre-recorded messages. Mostly the voices we heard were male and vaguely angry, but there was an occasional female voice in the mix, usually sounding calm and steady. We didn’t understand what was being said, and generally found it all a bit intrusive. Alcohol also began to be rationed – at the wine store, we could only buy three bottles at a time – so that people’s votes couldn’t be purchased with alcohol. The part that we enjoyed, though, were the fireworks that we frequently watched from our balcony, apparently from rallies.
In the week before the election, tensions rose. Some (but strangely not all) ATMs had decreased limits so you could only withdraw a maximum of 4,000 rupees rather than the standard 10,000 — we were told that this was to prevent buying votes. As the week went on, many cash machines simply ran out of the money, so there were flurries of WhatsApp messages with people telling each other where they could find cash. On Thursday before the election at 5 pm, Karntaka became a dry state. Not only were all liquor stores closed, but most restaurants that serve alcohol were also closed. We were warned that we should be careful toward the end of the week and through the following Tuesday. Votes would be cast on Saturday and counted on Tuesday with winners then announced. On Saturday at midday, I walked over to the nearby shopping mall, usually bustling with people and saw that it was completely closed and silent. I quickly walked back home and decided I’d just stay inside. The most tense day was Tuesday. Some said that if the BJP lost, there would be demonstrations which would likely turn violent. Some said that if the BJP won, there would be demonstrations which would likely turn violent. Everyone seemed to think it was at least possible that there would be violence after the votes were counted, and recommended again staying indoors. I did.
And then it was over. There was no violence, the stores reopened, and life went on. The BJP won but didn’t get a majority of the seats so the Congress and JD(S) might be able to put together a coalition so they also won. We’re yet to see what the impact of that will be, but for now, we’re just glad to be beyond the upheaval.