In an imperfect system ideals can backfire. In a world made of lies, the truth can come back to bite the speaker. And in a sea of disorder, an order-loving ship can wage a war against the ruling tides and may fight valiantly for a good cause, but it cannot emerge unscathed. Being right by itself is not a viable defence against the powerful wrongdoers except perhaps in a court of law, where, again – right or wrong, good or evil, innocent or guilty – nobody wins without a fight. Newton Kumar (Rajkummar Rao), who changed his name from Nutan to Newton for the better sound of the latter, learns or does not learn (we are never told) a few hard facts about the world the neck-wrecking way when he is sent as the Presiding Officer by the Election Commission to conduct Lok Sabha polls amidst the tribals in a far-flung, Naxalism-plagued area in Chattisgarh. Not a dream job, but Newton is nothing like his legendary namesake who talked about gravity in painful detail and is said to have gotten his ideas from an innocent apple that had freshly parted ways with his home branch.
Of course, our Newton does not have the high school students cursing him, but he is every bit as much pain-in-the-neck for the security force entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining law and order while the election officials conduct a “free and fair election”. Our Newton, a newly inducted government servant, takes his responsibilities very seriously and wants to do it strictly by the books dismissing all suggestions to the contrary right off the bat. It’s a duty, yes, but he wants to perform it dutifully in the right spirit, unlike others who want to just get it over with at the earliest.
Elections are an integral part of a functioning democracy anywhere, but in India they have been the most prominent – if not pretty much the only – sign of a working democracy for quite some time now. We like to think things are changing, and there is some truth to it, but there has been little in terms of political will to make Indian polity more inclusively democratic. Politics feeds off division, for the more the divisions, the more the classes, and the more the classes, the greater the number of people to represent each class, and so the game of political one-upmanship goes on.
Different causes are espoused by different political groups, who fight for the causes of their respective groups but don’t want those groups to be one with other groups for the fear of losing their political identity as the representatives of the group. The politicians have a vested interest in keeping their voters dissatisfied and isolated from others because the otherness is the political capital that they tap into for their political survival every so often. The dissatisfaction, however, should not rise beyond a certain level of discontent because behind, beneath and around every uprising and revolt there is a deep seated dissatisfaction and disenchantment that has gotten to the level where people throw their hands up and put their foot down. Such a situation is a threat to any political system. Once such breakdown occurs, bringing things back on track is an uphill task requiring superhuman strength and determination. Newton is put into such a situation armed with a unit of Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) and the duty to conduct elections in an area where conducting an election is nothing short of waging a war of civilization with civilized means against the barrel of a gun.
Newton has to deal with the unwilling security force in the region he is supposed to conduct voting with the chief of the force, Assistant Commandant Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), pressing for a shortcut and completely outside-the-rulebook way of conducting polls, which Newton Kumar dismisses without a moment’s thought and insists on going strictly by the books regardless of the circumstances. Aatma Singh finds himself helpless against the unwavering, principled position taken by the Presiding Officer to conduct the voting as per the rules and strictly in accordance with the spirit of democracy. Little surprise that Assistant Commandant Aatma Singh, the wielder of arms for the state, is not all that enthusiastic about giving democracy a chance in a ‘disturbed area’ through the democratic process of voting, which he sees more as an unnecessary inconvenience than anything else. The democratic rights of the 76 voters that Newton is not only duty-bound but also determined to facilitate the exercise of mean very little to Aatma Singh, who sees his duty as nothing more than maintaining peace and following direct orders for which he cannot really be seriously faulted.
While the significance of democracy as a system of governance cannot be over-emphasised, it takes constant nurturing and relentless defending for its spirit to flourish. The nourishing process is painfully slow, the steps are small though significant, and there is nothing glamorous about any of it. Each right, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, has to be defended because rights are the building blocks of an accountable government. Newton understands that, and for that reason he wants to ensure that the 76 voters he is there for get a fair chance to exercise their right to vote strictly as per the rules.
To fight for people is easier than to fight for abstract rights because many might not see the point in dutiful obedience of the law and conscientious performance of one’s duties. That explains why Aatma Singh’s first counter is that the people in the region are not bothered about casting votes or the elections. So, polling is an exercise in utter futility to him. From his perspective he is not wrong. The voters don’t have the first idea about what the whole exercise is about, as Newton later finds out and tries to explain to the completely uneducated tribals the fundamentals of representative democracy, which quite unsurprisingly fails to make any sense of any of them. That a tribal from amongst them would go to Delhi and become a legislator sounds so completely pointless to them that it could just as well be a tale from the Arabian Nights, which quite surely they could comprehend a lot better. And that’s another important lesson right there.
Democracy fizzles, sputters and dies without the citizenry being capable of making an informed choice. Right to vote by itself is meaningless unless the voters know the significance of the elections in the larger context of a democratic polity, and exercise their right conscienably. How the small picture of their daily lives is a part of the much larger political picture is not something that is easily understood even by the most educated people. So, the brief, ad hoc lesson in civics by Newton explaining the democratic process falls flat because democracy works best when it is practiced as a culture rather than used as a mechanism that needs to be understood and worked to obtain a particular outcome. And cultural shift doesn’t happen in a day.
We need to keep our faith in the democratic processes and institutions and take our little steps towards a meaningful democracy dutifully even if the steps seem pointless at a given point of time. That’s exactly what Newton does. He fights very hard and even picks up a gun only to ensure that the voting takes place in accordance with the rules and up to the time prescribed for the exercise.
The film touches upon an array of issues India is dealing with all at once as a democracy that is both flourishing and floundering at the same time, and despite dealing with some very serious and rather controversial issues it does not quite take the grim and funereal tone and shade that we have come to associate with the cinema of political realism. Towards the end, the film shows the Assistant Commandant shopping with his family carefully and selectively perhaps on account of suspension-induced shortage of funds, and in the closing sequence we see Malko (Anjali Patil) – the local, tribal teacher who assists Newton during the voting – visiting Newton the first time after the voting at a government office, where Newton works dutifully and strictly in accordance with the rules. The message, therefore, is: no worries, we got this covered.