POLITICS OF CHANGE by Syd Blackwell
I did not plan to be in New Delhi in March 1977. I had planned to be trekking in the Annapurna range in western Nepal. Hepatitis has a way of changing plans and thus after a difficult journey I eventually found myself in the Sunny Guest House just off Connaught Circus road.
When I´d left Canada a few months before, I had weighed about 180 pounds; I arrived at the Canadian Embassy in New Delhi at 143 pounds (81.6kg -64.9kg). They suggested an immediate flight back to Canada. I declined. Their alternate plan directed me to the guest house and an immediate appointment with a doctor located near that accommodation. I had not eaten in four days. I had been able to hold down only a little water in the last two days.
After an examination, the young doctor started me on the first of several IV infusions of liquid. I was dehydrated. I was to come back and visit every day around noon for another IV. I should try to drink boiled water or weak tea and get lots of rest. I should soon start eating plain, boiled vegetables, with the broth. During the IV, he asked me of my travel plans. I had planned on a journey through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey to Europe. He firmly suggested that when I got strong enough I should instead take a flight directly to London for more treatment and recovery. He recommended the correct hospital. He had been a medical student in London. During my visits, I would hear stories of his student life in London, a time he obviously enjoyed.
The doctor also talked about politics. I had paid no attention to any media since leaving Canada in November. I had known about The Emergency, a declaration by Indira Gandhi in 1975, but had little idea of the effects on the country. The Emergency was still in force, but in January, a large number of political prisoners had been released, a prelude to the end of this period and a national election in March.
I gleaned from the conversations with the doctor that although the Congress Party had been the only party to rule India since its independence in 1947, there was a sense that it could be in trouble. Many opposition groups had decided to compromise their differences and form a new coalition, Janata, the people´s party. The young doctor, whose family had undoubtedly supported the Congress Party to afford him the opportunity to study in England, seemed to have more interest in seeing the Janata party succeed. I learned that there was a great deal of anger over losses of freedoms and rights in economic classes that had always supported the Congress party and that there had been open political defections. He also said that the forced sterilization program of Sanjay Gandhi had been a disaster, particularly to the lower classes. He said I was lucky to be in India at such a great moment in time.
In the Sunny Guest House, where I spent most of my lucky time sleeping or reading or hydrating, I watched how the politics worked at this level in this most classed society. There were two front desk employees; one worked day shift, and the other night shift. At eight each evening, the day shift man would roll his wheeled, wooden armchair into a small closet, add his nice teapot, teacup and foot mat, and lock the door with a substantial padlock. The verbal exchange with his replacement was business only. There was no social interaction at all.
The night desk person was nicer. He was less officious; more relaxed. Quite happy to chat with his guests. His chair was also wooden but had no arms or wheels. His own teapot and teacup were less grand, and even his foot mat seemed poorer somehow. Still, he smiled a lot.
These two men worked twelve hour shifts every day. There did not seem to be any provision for days off, even for illness. It was not an easy life for either man, but clearly one had a more favoured position.
As the election neared, there was seeming indifference to politics in the Sunny Guest House in the daytime. The election result would be as always. However, it was quite the opposite in the evening. Our night clerk was clearly becoming excited.
In the heart of New Delhi is Connaught Circus, a gigantic ring road. Well inside this road is the Inner Circle, another substantial ring road. And, within this, is 41,500 square meter Central Park. Here, the election results would be posted on a gigantic outdoor display board being constructed right then. The results would take nearly three days before they would all be amassed and posted. Clearly it was the place to be on election day.
The day was already fading by the time I made my way to Central Park. The first election results were stills hours away, but there was a gigantic crowd in and around the park. There was a smug confident air from the center near the great display board. There was strutting, posturing, and loud talk. However, it was out around the edges that the air was different, alive with a restless buzz. It was electric like it feels just before a massive thunderstorm.
The first returns definitely favoured the Janata party. Those in the center responded with haughty derisive scoffs. Early returns meant nothing they decried. But the buzz grew so much louder. By the time my limited endurance forced me to leave for bed and rest, the crowd in the middle had somehow melted away, replaced by a lively, noisy, aggressive throng intently focused on every new posting.
I did not go back to the park, but the rest of the returns confirmed what had begun on that electric evening. The Janata party swept to a massive victory and both Indira and Sanjay Gandhi lost their own seats. In a few days Morarji Desai would take over as the first-ever Prime Minister not from the Congress Party.
One day between those two happenings, I bid the effervescent night clerk good evening and went to my room. When I ventured out the next morning, I found the same man with a smile twice as large as usual, sitting in the wheeled armchair. The grand teapot and cup were nearby. He was almost laughing at my surprise. There had been a changing of the guard during the night shift. Apparently, the chair and tea gear belonged to the position, not to the person!
At eight that evening, the new night man, the former day man, appeared for his first full shift in his new role. He watched the new day man lock up the armchair and tea stuff. The new day man only spoke to him briefly about business before he left. However, the new day man still had that huge smile on his face as he walked out the door.
The next day, I visited my friendly doctor for the last time. He pronounced me fit to go. It was our shortest visit. His mind was somewhere else, in some contented place. I purchased a ticket to London, departing the very next day.
During the flight, I read a Time magazine account of the Indian election. When I finished, I wondered if the writer had even been there. He surely could not have seen the same election I saw.