When Indian elections were noble and policies mattered

Hari Chand Aneja remembers a 1937 election when the campaign was civil and what mattered was who would provide the greatest benefit to the community.

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‘I will vote for Lala Kalyandas, because he has promised to introduce bullock-cart sprinklers in our town,” announced Choudhary Ramnarayan.

This prompted Jamnadas to retort: “But Seth Hukumchand insists we need to erect a platform in the main mandi (market place) for the vegetable vendors.”

This was 1937 and municipal elections were due in six weeks in Tandalianwala, in what was then undivided Punjab in British India. It was an electrifying time. The two candidates were prominent commission agents in the grain market. Lala Kalyandas represented the Hindu Mahasabha and Hukumchand represented the Congress party.

The Punjab’s torrid summers were punctuated with hot winds called “loos”, which were like waves of destruction. The dust flew into our eyes and every nook of homes. The skies rained a million fires on the baked earth of fertile Punjab and relief came only in the evening when a “mashi” sprinkled the dusty roads from the water-filled goatskin leather bag on his back. This settled the dust and ushered some relief to the residents.

However the town had only 10 mashis and it would be late night before they sprinkled water on more than just a few of the dusty, baked streets. Lala Kalyandas promised to introduce bullock-driven water-tanks with sprinklers mounted on the rear which could cool the streets in a few hours.

Near Tandalianwala’s grain market was a fresh vegetable market, where vendors sold onions, potatoes, cauliflowers, spinach and the favourite of all Punjab, “sarson da saag” (mustard leaves).

The vendors squatted and placed their wares on the dusty streets, with the result that the vegetables accumulated dirt and grime. The town consumed these dust coated vegetables. Hukumchand promised that if he got elected, he would build a concrete platform for the vegetable vendors, so that the town consumed hygienic vegetables.

Thus commenced the great battle of the bullock-cart sprinkler versus the vegetable-vendor platform in 1937 in Tandalianwala. What did the town need more urgently? Which choice would benefit more people? Which candidate would fulfil his promise after the elections? These issues were debated, discussed, thrashed ad nauseam in every corner of the town. Scores of grain merchants would sit with my father in his office – and even late into the night at home – debating the options. Whenever I visited any grocery for an errand, I would find some customers in hot debate on the topic with the shopkeepers.

Back then, women did not vote but the debate between the bullock-cart sprinkler and the vegetable platform engrossed them too. I found my mother and sisters discussing the subject late into the nights. Women from neighbouring homes joined them.

Nevertheless, in this entire medley the candidates never maligned the other candidate or made false accusations. They kept the election clean. The town’s walls were not defiled with publicity posters, banners or paintings. The candidates relied on personal meetings with the citizens to champion their agendas.

It was easy to meet the candidates to evaluate their commitment. If a road was cracked, a well had crumbled, or a local tax was too onerous, you could seek assurances. And if the candidates bumped into each other in a bazaar while canvassing, they greeted each other graciously.

Election day was a landmark day. Local residents would dress up for the occasion and start queuing at the polling booth as early as 7am.

I was 16 then. My friends and I cherished these elections because the polling was held in our school, which meant we had the day off.

In the years that followed, elections in India became exercises in hurling abuse at each other. I hope we will once again see a day when political parties fight elections on issues, and not on religious, caste or communal lines, and with candidates chosen because of their contributions and qualifications.

The election that started yesterday involves 800 million eligible voters.Indians need to step forward to vote to elect honest, action-oriented representatives to tackle scandals and corruption.

In Tandalianwala in 1937, the bullock-cart sprinkler won the day, implemented over the next year. Back then, there was hope for the future, in our hearts.

Hari Chand Aneja is a 92-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work