Both the courts and the Election Commission have gone into activist mode over political behaviour for the coming polls. About time too, though it must be said that the Great Election Circus is now appreciably a less confrontational, dramatic and colourful exercise.
When you consider the assassinations, violence, widespread rigging and stuffing of ballot boxes at gunpoint that used to pervade elections in the 1970s and 1980s, or the campaigns run by the Gandhi dynasty and L K Advani's ratha yatras that whipped up national frenzy, or the gallimaufry of eccentric Independent candidates like Dharti Pakad who used to pop up all over the landscape, then the sayings and doings of Varun Gandhi, Sanjay Dutt and Pappu Yadav are small blips in the overall picture. Jaswant Singh dispensing cash and Mallika Sarabhai collecting it are the sort of stories that make for entertaining sidebars.
Many factors have contributed to this sea change, the principal one being the disappearance of larger-than-life national political figures like Indira Gandhi, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Rajiv Gandhi and the steady erosion of pan-Indian parties like the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party who could plunge ahead on their own. They are now dependent on fickle allies like the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa or the Pattali Makkal Katchi in Tamil Nadu, who'll dump them to improve their own arithmetic.
Single personality-dominated regional parties such as MGR's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam , N T Rama Rao's Telugu Desam and Lalu Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal have taken a beating and have to sleep with the strangest of bedfellows; coalitions in the states echo, and often contradict, more complex arrangements at the Centre. In the country's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, for decades the bedrock of Congress power, only traces of the party's past glory remain. Despite Sonia and Rahul Gandhi's best efforts it is unlikely that the Congress will be able to retain the nine seats (out of 80) that it had in the outgoing Lok Sabha. Control of Uttar Pradesh remains a contest between Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav.
But there are other differences in the electoral process that are less easily quantifiable but indicate sweeping social changes. Two-thirds of the electorate is under the age of 35, which may not necessarily mean that young Indians are wild about exercising their franchise, but it does imply that voters are more aware, literate and technology-savvy. More data about Indian elections is readily available online than ever before, including yards of trivia. (Example: "Mayawati's BSP and George W Bush's Republican Party both have the same electoral symbol -- the elephant!")
The unlettered are as eager to catch up. While queuing at my local polling booth for the state election in Delhi some months ago, I found myself in line with local domestics, many decked out in their Sunday best. Among the most enthusiastic were the neighbourhood's cleaning ladies, keenly instructing one another on the simple magic of button-pressing in an electronic voting machine. "It's much easier than getting milk from the Mother Dairy booth," I overheard one telling another.
A news story this week has the Army chief General Deepak Kapoor exhorting soldiers, their families and ex-servicemen to register for the polls -- they add up a crore of voters -- and the services are working towards a 100 per cent registration. An officer was quoted saying, "Soldiers have the potential to change political fortunes." Elsewhere in the sub-continent such words would carry an ominous ring. But in India, fortunately, they are a reminder of not just every citizen's right but duty.
As for the BJP's new poster boy Varun Gandhi, now in detention, the coolest comment came from J & K chief minister Omar Abdullah, "India is much stronger than that. I don't think that one hate speech can make India crumble and threaten its security."
Elections 2009 may lack the turbulent drama and horror of elections past but they carry many of the signs of coming of age.