Delhi Polls: What Did Urdu Poets Like Gulzar Write On Elections?

Plato wanted poets banished from his republic as they could ‘make lies seem like truth’. What did Urdu poets feel?

7 min read
Image of Gulzar used for representational purposes.

With campaigning for the Delhi elections reaching a particularly brutish crescendo and elections, in general, coming to mean far more than simply the exercise of individual franchise in a democratic system, it might be useful to see how the creative writer and poet, especially in Urdu, has interpreted and analysed the electoral process.

Plato had wanted poets banished from his republic because they could make lies seem like truth. PB Shelley, on the other hand, thought poets were the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”. In light of such pronouncements, let us see how our poets have viewed our political scenario, especially people’s power to vote.

  • Plato had wanted poets banished from his republic because they could make lies seem like truth.
  • PB Shelley thought poets were the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”.
  • Akbar Allahabadi (1846-1921), a trenchant critic of ‘modernism’, took jibes at the fledgling electoral systems being installed within a larger colonial enterprise.
  • Akbar’s younger contemporary, Zareef Lakhnavi (1870-1937), was similarly dubious about the ‘benefits’ of municipality elections in a satirical poem called ‘Shaamat-e Election’.

Taking Jibes at Fledgling Electoral Systems Within a Larger Colonial Enterprise

Akbar Allahabadi (1846-1921), a trenchant critic of ‘modernism’, takes a jibe at the fledgling electoral systems being installed within a larger colonial enterprise, alluding here to the first-ever general elections held in British India in 1920 to elect members to the Imperial Legislative Council and the Provincial Councils, in this somewhat tart observation:

Scheme ka jhoolna woh jhooley
Lekin yeh kyun apni raah bhooley
Qaum ke dil mein khote hai paida
Achhey achchey hain vote ke shauda

(Let others swing on the swing of ‘Scheme’
But why have they strayed from the beaten path
A flaw has entered the heart of the people
The best among them are enamoured by the vote)

Akbar’s younger contemporary, Zareef Lakhnavi (1870-1937), is similarly dubious about the ‘benefits’ of municipality elections in a satirical poem called ‘Shaamat-e Election’.

In its engaging portrayal of an elitist man crossing the hitherto impenetrable socio-economic barrier in search of votes, the poem can be seen as an early portrayal of social engineering that India would witness in the decades after Independence. It talks of the ‘high’ going to the ‘low’ begging for votes, of asking for votes in the name of being co-religionists among a litany of other woes concluding with the rueful question:

Iss tarah ke voter aur member hon jab iss qism ke
Kahiye is municipality se kisey rahat mile

(If the voters are such and the members are like this
What relief can such a municipality expect?)


‘The Menace that Lies Beneath the Veneer of Democracy’

One of the earliest commentators on the socio-political scenario in Pakistan, the India-born satirist Dilawer Figar takes a jibe at female representation:

Apiya jo ab ke qaumi election men hain khaḌi
Mardon ki rahnuma.i karega zamana kyaa!

(Now that Big Sis is standing for the elections
How will the world show the way for men!)

Taking a cue from Ghalib’s famous line ‘Ik Brahaman ne kaha hai ke ye saal achcha hai’, our very own humourist Popular Meeruthi is predicting:

Meri qismat ka sitara hai chamakne vaala
Mere baare mein ye voter ka ḳhayal achchha hai
Is bharose pe election men khada huun main bhi
Ik nujumi ne kaha hai ki ye saal achchha hai

(The star of good fortune is about to shine brightly
It’s a good thing that the voter thinks well of me
And with that good faith I too am standing for election
An astrologer has said this is going to be a good year for me)

And elsewhere, hinting at the menace that lies beneath the veneer of democracy with political leaders relying upon the services of specially-hired thugs, he writes:

Ek leader se kaha ye main ne kal ai 'Papular'
Tu election men agar haara to kya rah ja.ega
Apne ġhundon ki taraf dekha aur us ne yuun kaha
Jis diye men jaan hogi vo diya rah ja.ega

(I said to a leader yesterday, O Popular
What’ll happen if you lose in the election
He looked at his hired goons and said
The lamp that has life will remain lit)

‘An Election Means Choosing Between a Rock and a Hard Place’

With his tongue firmly in cheek, Nashtar Amrohvi is declaring:

Nahin parva ki leader kaun achchha kaun ganda hai
Siyasat meri rozi hai election mera dhanda hai

(I don’t care which leader is good or which is bad
Politics is my profession and election my trade)

On the money spent on electioneering by individual candidates, here is Arshad Mir’s woeful lament:

Election ab bhala kaise ladenge ham raqibon se
Kamai to uda daali hai saari ishtiharon par

(Now how will I fight the elections with my rivals
I have spent all my savings on advertisements)

In a short poem entitled ‘Makhmasa’ (meaning ‘puzzle’ or ‘riddle’), a contemporary poet Inayat Ali Khan is asking where does one go when an election means choosing between a rock and a hard place:

Pahunch gaye hain election ke phir dvare par
Tumhi batao mire bhai kis taraf jaaen
Idhar miyan hai udhar maai kis taraf jaaen
Idhar kuaan hai udhar khaai kis taraf jaaen

(We have again reached the doorway of elections
You tell me, my brother; where should we go
A husband here, a mother there; where should we go
A well here and a cliff there; where should we go)


‘Give Them Everything But Do Not Give Them Your Vote’

In a poem entitled ‘Vasiyat’ (‘Will’), Kaifi Azmi is asking his son to give his heart, his eyes, even his khuddari (self-respect) after he dies but never, never give his vote to ‘them’, meaning the dark forces that are tearing away at society:

Jo vo phailain daaman ye vasiyat yaad kar lena
Unhein har chiiz de dena par un ko vote mat dena

(If they beg you remember this Will of mine
Give them everything, but do not give them your vote)

The poet and film-maker, Gulzar, who had made the film ‘Mere Apne’ (1971) about gang-warfare and political campaigning that exploits unemployed youth, writes this haiku-like piece on the post-election horse-trading and the scenes witnessed in Maharashtra after the recent elections using the analogy of rogue roosters and hapless hens:

Badey mustande murghe thhe gali ke
Bacha ke rakhna mushkil ho gaya thha murghiyon ko
Kabhi sab tokri mein rakh ke ooper eent rakh detey
To charrh ke eenton par vo bang detey thhey
Unhein darbon mein band kartey
To darwazon pe dastak aaney lagti thhi
Bason mein bhar ke le jaate hain ab
Unhein ab hotalon mein band rakhtey hain
Koi ‘ego’ nahin in murghiyon ki
Faqat voting mein aa kar andey detii hain!

(The roosters in the alley had become such rogues
It was becoming difficult to keep the hens safe
When the hens would be put under baskets with a brick on top
They would climb atop the bricks and crow
When the hens would be put in coops
They would begin to peck at the door
Now they are taken away in buses
And kept locked up in hotels
These hens have no ‘ego’
They only come during voting to lay eggs)

‘The EVM, Too, Is Mine’

The ailing, elderly poet from the Jamia neighbourhood who has adopted the university’s name as his nom de plum, Asrar Jamaii, has written ‘Leader ki Dua’, a spoof on Sir Muhammad Iqbal’s famous poem ‘Dua’ (‘Prayer’); except that this prayer is not address to the Lord but to Iblis (Satan):

Paida dil-e-votar mein vo shorish-e-mahshar kar
Jo josh-e-election mein danka mira bajva de

(Create such a fear of Doomsday in the voters’ heart
That it may beat my drum in the frenzy of election)

Asra Rizvi draws our attention to the arrogance and appropriation of political power that is far more sinister than the pomp and splendour of election rallies, the flower-bedecked stages, the loudspeakers and bombastic speeches filled with high rhetoric and empty promises:

EVM bhi mera hai
Sab neta nagri meri hai
Ab koi nahin kuchh bolega
Aur koi nahin munh kholega

(The EVM too is mine
The city and all its leaders are mine
No one shall say anything now
No one shall open their mouth)

In a long satirical poem directed specifically at elections entitled ‘Main Nashe Mein Hoon’ by Syed Mohamad Jafri (1905-1976) takes a sharp penetrating look at the state of the nation, rocked as it is by protests, empty sloganeering, false promises and processions where nothing is free, not even fame that can bring in votes (shohrat to muft vote dilati nahin hai kuchh):

Is qaum ki falah hai jam-o-subu ke biich
Tum intiḳhab ja ke laḌo hav-hu ke biich
Dushnam aur balvon ke aur du-ba-du ke biich
Jaise ki koi baiTha ho bazm-e-adu ke biich

(The welfare of this nation lies betwixt the glass and jug
While you go and fight your elections amidst hue and cry
Between abuse and riots and confrontations and tete-a-tetes
Like someone sitting in an Assembly of Rivals)


‘It’s the Season of Rains, When Votes Will Shower’

In yet another poem, titled ‘Election’, the same Jafri paints a picture that has become all too familiar: a state and society in the throes of elections, of leaders behaving like wrestlers in a wrestling pit, of scuffles breaking out among rivals during processions, when grand sales are announced at shops selling votes (‘voton ki har dukan pe hogi grand sale’), when only those people matter whose names exist in electoral rolls (‘zinda hai vo ki jis ka register men naam hai’),

Saaqi sharab de ke election hai aaj-kal
Barsenge vote jis men vo savan hai aaj-kal
Jamhuriyat ke paanv men jhanjan hai aaj-kal
Ye mulk us ke naach ka angan hai aaj-kal

(Pour me some wine for it’s the time of election these days
It’s the season of rains when votes will shower these days
There’s a tinkling anklet on the feet of democracy these days
This country has become a courtyard for its dance these days)


Hasil karenge laakh tariqon se vote ko
Paani hi ki tarah se bahaenge note ko

(We will gain the votes though lakhs of different ways
We will pour wads of money like flowing water)

Today, when the air is rent with talk of ‘Tukde-Tukde Gang’ and cries of ‘Goli Maro’, these jibes of votes-for cash and empty sloganeering seem benign, almost genteel. Only time will tell what the poetry of tomorrow will depict.

(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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