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Spot the difference

Updated April 30, 2014

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Indian polling staff match their individual electoral lists after collecting electronic voting machines and other election material at a distribution centre in Amritsar on April 29, 2014 on the eve of Lok Sabha - lower house - elections. — Photo by AFP
Indian polling staff match their individual electoral lists after collecting electronic voting machines and other election material at a distribution centre in Amritsar on April 29, 2014 on the eve of Lok Sabha - lower house - elections. — Photo by AFP

‘Spot the difference’ might be the most popular game that Indians and Pakistanis play with each other. As soon as an Indian comes to know that I am from Pakistan, curiosity sets in and the ominous first query they shoot at me is how I find India to be different from Pakistan.

I can easily see commonalities and differences in a lot of areas. But one situation leaves me unable to spot even a single difference. That’s when I meet an enthusiastic worker of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). They could be supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).

No doubt there are stark differences between the politics of the two parties. But at the worker level they are identical twins. Their approach towards politics, their jargon and attitude, their air of self-righteousness — there is no difference. You can easily mistake one for the other.

Referring to Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), one young Sikh, holding up a ‘Vote for AAP’ placard at a chowk in Ludhiana said: “They both have had all the opportunity to give us the government of our dreams. But all they excelled in is loot and plunder.”

This form of campaigning has been adopted by the resource-starved party as an alternative to putting up expensive hoarding boards and posters.

The young Sikh taught at an IT institute and had volunteered to perform his two-hour duty in the sweltering Punjab heat. I asked him whether the AAP stood a chance in the state. “I don’t know,” he replied, “but it’s about winning hearts first. Electoral glory will follow one day. We are ready to avail ourselves of any chances but we are not in a hurry.”

I wondered whether these words constituted an actual difference between the two parties that have been able to bring the youth into electoral politics in our two countries, or formed his personal view.

But, disappointingly, there was no difference that I had been able to spot a day earlier when I attended a rally addressed by India’s much-anticipated next prime minister Narendra Modi at Ludhiana. It was a typical ‘Punjab’ rally. A good part of the crowd was herded in from the rural areas. A massive fleet of buses was in view. It was commonly known to journalists that each participant was ‘well served’.

The crowd was well trained too. They never forgot to flash a victory sign in front of the clicking cameras, and knew exactly what actions made for good video footage. But if you engaged with any of them at a personal level, they could offer no more than a single line about their political affiliation, and questions regarding other choices were evaded by them.

For most in the rally supporting the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the main Sikh party and BJP ally in Punjab, it was simply a matter of faith. Sikh religious chants mixed with election slogans.

The show on stage was familiar too. As polling in Punjab was, at the time of writing, just days away, the leaders wanted to leave no stone unturned. They exploited any idea that presented even the faintest hope of being able to make political capital. Most of these ideas were common to electoral politics all over India but Punjab has one unique problem —narcotics.

Punjab is one of the richest Indian states, flush with foreign remittances, agricultural riches and a reasonable share in manufacturing. This affluence has resulted in a culture of high consumption. The road from Amritsar to Ludhiana is laden with sprawling recreational resorts and banquet halls.

You can spot any and every luxury car, including world famous brands. The city of Ludhiana, which is a quarter of the size of Lahore, has more plush markets. Punjabis are known for having lavish marriage ceremonies. The culture of extravagance has a flip side as any downturn in the economy is reflected in suicides and a rise in the number of drug addicts.

The consumption of the dried poppy husk, locally called pukhee, has existed as an accepted evil since long but it has been recently replaced by the more lethal chitta, heroin, which most believe comes from Pakistan. Some interpret its existence as a well-hatched conspiracy of the enemy country and are furious with local accomplices who are super rich and well-connected with the current rulers of Indian Punjab.

A villager I talked to termed a recent provincial ban on the less harmful pukhee as a ploy by the narco mafia to expand the market for its very expensive and more deadly alternative. The rising addiction rates are a cause of grave concern for social circles, and a stern anti-narcotics policy by political parties is in strong demand.

A ruling party leader, who is contesting the Lok Sabha elections in Punjab as it goes to polls today, squarely blamed the evil on Pakistan, while addressing a SAD-BJP rally at Ludhiana. He also assured the cheering crowd that once a Modi government was installed in Delhi, the Indo-Pak border would be sealed so tightly that even a sparrow would not be able to fly across. I guess the crowd believed that this would aptly end the menace. On this count too, the rally failed to be any different from most I have attended in my own country.