Election songs: a mirror to India’s democracy

The political film is a rare animal in Bollywood; the political song even rarer. But there’s a particular oddity that used to appear sometimes on screen, especially in the 1970s: the ‘election song’.

The election song was rarely germane to the plot, and mostly predictable, lamenting a political candidate’s dishonesty or celebrating the victory of truth over lies (Woh jhootha hai, vote na usko dena from Namak Haram; Sun Champa sun Tara from Apna Desh; Kaun sachcha hai aur kaun jhootha from Zindagi Zindagi). Some songs did rise above the particularity of the narrative to offer sharp insights into real-life political situations and events. And of course there were some brilliant ones from lyricists like Gulzar.

Almost always picturised amid public rollicking, political songs held a mirror to the popular Indian concept of elections as a carnival. All, without exception, decried the shenanigans of ugly politicians; I mention this no-brainer because the unscrupulous, politician-whitewashing, alt-truth era is likely to alter this.

As we go to the polls, here’s a selection of election/political songs that reiterate some never-changing political truths of this country.

Haalchaal theek-thaak haiFilm: Mere Apne Lyricist: Gulzar

Gulzar, never one for the in-your-face statement, builds up this delightful song as biting satire laced with allegory—so, yeah, all’s well in the country except for a few trifling glitches like hunger, unemployment and corruption. Sung by a gang of educated, unemployed youth, the lyric touches on common-man issues in the early ’70s with characteristic Gulzaresque creativity: “Bazaron ke bhav mere tau se bade/Makanon pe pagdi waale sasur khade/Buddhi bhookh marti nahin, zinda hai abhi/Koi in buzurgon se kaise lade”. The buzurgs aren’t on their death bed even 48 years later, and Gulzar Saab needs to write a sequel to this song for sure.

Zamane dhat tere kiFilm: Tere Mere Sapne Lyricist: Neeraj

Zamane dhat tere ki, a political ‘filler’, has nothing to do with the film’s narrative but it’s a first-rate, hugely entertaining song that mocks the standard pitfalls of Indian politics like opportunistic defectors, lumpenism and religious charlatans. All its six hard-hitting verses are valid till today but there’s one whose first line is painfully relevant in the alt-truth era: Dar dar maari phire sacchai, ban kar yahan bhikhari/Raj kare mehlon mein baithi dagabaaz makkari. And even as we pride ourselves on our democratic electoral exercise, the lyricist reiterates a bald truth:

Jiski laathi bhains usi ki, kya hai democracy, zamane dhat tere ki!

Bhaande phoot jayengeFilm: Jaan Haazir Hai Lyricist: Shaily Shailendra

This one is a song most people would never have heard, given that it’s from a little-known film (albeit produced by Vijay Anand). Beginning with ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’, it segues into a cleverly ambiguous lyric that, among other things, slams MISA, the draconian anti-human rights law passed in 1971: Ek naya kanoon nikla hai, naam hai jiska MISA/ Jail koi bhi ja sakta hai ab bina visa. But though mostly contextual, the song ends with a cynical line that’s proved to be the eternal cyclical truth of Indian politics:Saare loafer jayenge, naye joker aayenge. Once more with feeling then.

Salaam kijiyeFilm: Aandhi Lyricist: Gulzar

Suchitra Sen playing Indira Gandhi is on her way to a campaign meeting when a group of people begins baiting her with this qawwali. The subject is familiar—the appearance of political representatives in their constituencies only when elections near: Salaam kijiye, aali janaab aaye hain/Yeh paanch saalon ka dene hisaab aaye hain. One verse, which was left out of the screen version, has a stinging critique of identity politics and the politician expecting voters to be worshippers: Jo in khudaaon ko sajdaa kare na, kaafir hai/Bas ek vote nahin hai, yeh jaan haazir hai. Sounds familiar?

Election mein malik ke ladkeFilm: Aansoo Ban Gaye Phool Lyricist: Taj Bhopali

Another unknown song that’s pretty sharp, Election mein maalik ke ladke khade hain is set amid student elections but is a veiled comment on nepotism and dynastic politics. Brimming with sarcasm, it goes: Inke siva vote ka haqdar kaun hai/Inse lade chunaav woh gaddar kaun hai/Vaadon ka aitbaar karo, inko vote do. While the lyric fits the situation of a privileged student candidate citing his father’s and grandfather’s contributions, the giveaway lines in the song take it into a larger context:

Aise saput ab hai kahan apne desh mein/Bhagwan aa gaye hain insaan ke vesh mein/Chanda diya inhone freedom ke case mein.

Janata RocksFilm: Satyagraha Lyricist: Prasoon Joshi

Though written for a 2013 film, this political song doesn’t move beyond the staleness of lambasting corruption because of its context (Satyagraha was based on Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement): Hilegi kursi, dolega shaasan dag mag dag mag, janata rocks/Ab jaag uthi hai, janata rocks/Ab baat karegi, janata rocks. The refrain borrows the tune of an old Govinda comedy number, has film star voice parodies and youngsters b-boying on screen, all of which enhances the cool quotient but not much else. Worth a mention because it’s perhaps the only ‘revolutionary’ song of the last decade .

Ghapla hai bhai and Bandobast haiFilm: Hu Tu Tu Lyricist: Gulzar

Ghapla hai lists scams of the 1990s from Laloo’s fodder fraud to Harshad Mehta’s bribe-stuffed suitcases in a song whose effectiveness lies in its structure; it goes from rumbustiousness and mocking merriment to heart-wrenching solemnity as the film’s sutradhar flips the switch to sing about those at the receiving end of the corruption. Tin tin tare log bechare, til til marne wale/Keede aur makodon jaise log bechare, ghiste ghiste phat jaate hain. Gulzar’s lyric is powerful because it makes the connection between the venality of politics—which has in popular discourse been reduced to black humour—and human misery in the same framework.

The second song is more chilling: Bandobast hai, zabardast hai/Khoon ki khushboo badi badmast hai. A challenge lanced at a reigning politician to the rhythm of aggressively thumping lathis, one of the verses goes: Samay barabar kar deta hai/Samay ke haath mein aari hai/Waqt se panga mat lena/Waqt ka panja bhaari hai. There’s a lesson in that for all political parties.


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