This is the story of an election and of two women who stood for it.

Let’s begin with the first. An educator and political activist, she is credited with being the architect of Delhi’s education reforms. She was sacked by the Union Ministry for holding an unapproved designation, though the work she had done with Delhi Government schools had come in for much praise across the board. Born to educationist parents, she used her middle name Marlena as a surname (coined from combining Marx and Lenin) rather than her surname. A Chevening and a Rhodes scholar, she returned to India to teach at Rishi Valley school, before joining politics with the Aam Aadmi Party. She lost to the BJP’s Gautam Gambhir, who brought to the contest the glamour of being an ex-cricketer.

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And here’s the second. Pragya Singh Thakur. Known to us as Sadhvi Pragya. She was accused of being one of the masterminds behind the Malegaon blasts in 2008, which killed ten people and was arrested. The National Investigation Agency dropped some of the charges against her, and she was granted bail on health grounds. She contested the elections from Bhopal and was pitted against the Congress candidate Digvijay Singh, veteran politician, erstwhile CM of the state. She won with a whopping margin that exceeded three lakh votes. This makes her the first terror accused in India to win a general election.

Marlena was the subject of an insidious slur campaign that involved pamphlets distributed door to door stating scurrilous and libelous things about her, casting aspersions on her character.

The election campaigns that both fought were marked with acrimonious incidents. Atishi was accused of being a Christian (in a socio-political situation now where religion seems to take precedence over all other factors including ability and mindset), and was compelled to drop her surname apart from issuing a clarification that she was in fact a Punjabi Hindu. She was the subject of an insidious slur campaign that involved pamphlets distributed door to door stating scurrilous and libelous things about her, casting aspersions on her character.

Pragya Thakur’s campaign was an acrimonious one which began by taking on the late Hemant Karkare and ended by lauding Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation. The last did have Prime Minister Modi state on a public platform that he would never forgive her for saying what she had, but that was all the damage control done. Pragya won comfortably, with a three lakh margin over her nearest competitor.

Somewhere between Atishi and Pragya is where the Indian electorate lies, and the message couldn’t have been starker. The divide in the perception of what the electorate wants and what the electorate will actually vote for is now clear.

The two campaigns and candidates couldn’t have been more different. Somewhere between Atishi and Pragya is where the Indian electorate lies, and the message couldn’t have been starker. The divide in the perception of what the electorate wants and what the electorate will actually vote for is now clear. What is it that made Atishi’s campaign, fought on the plank of education and development fail and Pragya Thakur’s campaign fought on the right wing planks succeed? Surely there is no black and white answer.

Can one surmise that the electorate does not vote for the candidate but instead, votes for the party and Atishi was let down by belonging to a party which no longer had the electorate’s heart? After all, pundits had put her track record and her popularity with the masses in Delhi as an advantage she had over Gambhir who was a political newbie. Was the undisputed fact that the BJP presented the electorate clear takeaways as well as a Prime Ministerial candidate who was already top of mind recall over all the other parties the advantage Gambhir had over her? Or his popularity at the grassroots level thanks to his years of playing for India? In a country where cricket is a religion, was this a no contest from the word go.

What is it that made Atishi’s campaign, fought on the plank of education and development fail and Pragya Thakur’s campaign fought on the right wing planks succeed? Surely there is no black and white answer.

But one must keep in mind that the disparity between Gambhir and Atishi was substantial in the final tally, and  then there is the fact that Atishi pipped the finish line at the third spot, behind not just Gambhir but also the Congress candidate Arvinder Singh Lovely. Perhaps, the voters did not vote for or against Atishi at all, they voted for the parties they were loyal too. Or, scarily, did Atishi’s campaign to put education as the plank for progress and development, with a track record of achievement in this space, not appeal at all to the voters who instead chose someone who is a newcomer in the political arena purely based on his performance on the cricket ground? How does one read the Indian voter, such a complex and diverse cohort, and conclude what could have swayed their voting decisions?

The fact does remain that in Bhopal, Pragya Thakur was pitted against Digvijay Singh from the Congress who perhaps does not have popular appeal anymore, despite his long political career. The optics Pragya Thakur presented was striking, in her saffron clad ensemble, her narratives of torture while in custody, her health issues, her ‘victim narrative’ some might argue, did grab public opinion and attention. She is also a controversial, polarising figure. Her victory is what could be the litmus test of what the electorate will overlook in order to stay loyal to a party that they believe in.

In how we vote, we see what we believe in. Would it be fair to say, we as a people are now looking for hope through a nationalistic lens?

So what does the Indian voter vote for? Are development and education secondary to the promise of nationalistic pride? Do educational qualification and track record of the candidate not matter when it comes to the hustings? In how we vote, we see what we believe in. Would it be fair to say, we as a people are now looking for hope through a nationalistic lens? And finally, in a political arena that is increasingly jingoistic, hyper-nationalistic, with machismo as its driving narrative, are women candidates finding it even more slippery to find a foothold if they don’t have the juggernaut of the leading party to support them and their candidacy?

Also Read: Marks Aren’t Boxes Into Which We Should Be Categorising Our Children

Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are author’s own.

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