Monday, May 18, 2009

Indian Politics Comes A Full Circle

Pollsters again came second in the game of guessing the mind of the Indian electorate. The prophecies of neck-and-neck photofinishes with Third umpires holding sway, all melted in the swelter of the summer of 2009. All would-be PMs turned out wouldn't-be's, except the one who would be! Some dreams came crashing, some got exposed to be the daydreams that they were, and some got what they couldn't even dream. Thus unfolded the drama of the dreams of a people aspiring to democratic bliss.

Well, take a bow, India! The democracy keeps taking baby steps forward toward eliminating its flaws and deficiencies, hoping for the strides to happen some day. The stolen footages of captured booths and serial-stamping by goons have been largely conspicuous by their absence. The electronic voting machines (EVMs) didn't tank in India, though they had in Norway a few weeks ago necessitating a return to paper ballots, despite being deployed on a scale a hundred times larger here. Remember that those were not made in China -- a resounding testimony to India's manufacturing prowess, what say! From the fumbling footsteps of Peri Sastry in the late eighties, to the strident swagger of T. N. Seshan in the nineties, to the tangled tango of Gopalaswamy-Chawla in the Y2K9s-- the frowning degeneration of the Election Commission (and the electoral process it oversees), has given way to a reassuringly smiling regeneration.

A successful completion of the quintennial national festival whose popularity transcends all social, religious, and political divisions. A sense of relief and happiness in the midst of dire situations on all sides of the border -- with Pakistan a cauldron, Nepal a dogfight-house teetering on the brink of militancy, Bangladesh in the grip of mutinous brutalities stoked by fundamentalists, and Srilanka trying to douse the flames of a long-standing civil-war resulting in a grim humanitarian situation. A stable India, as mandated by the current election results, can be the only antidote to the dangerous situation all around, and act as a regional as well as global stabilizer.

As much as there are sighs of relief over the certainty after the results, through the run up to it, it was just a nightmare. Internal security in the doldrums thanks to the dismal inefficiency of the policing and intelligence apparatus which resulted in terrorist attacks becoming a monthly affair, political debate nosediving to personal slanging matches, every second leader aspiring to be a kingmaker if not king, the tearing pulls of social and regional divisions in all directions, neighborhood Talibanic menace threatening to plunge us into a deadly battle with medievalists, parties resembling molecular Brownian Motion as to their allegiances and alliances, the economy gradually getting infected with the crippling global flus and salvaging measures in the danger of being turned turtle through the efforts of bankrupt ideologues frozen in time -- it had all the makings of an impending Greek tragedy. There was widespread anticipation of a looming second election within another year because of the ruptured nature of the polity. It's a tribute to the sagacity of the electorate that it circumvented the pitfalls, to present a cohesive face and allowing the rollout of a resolute response to the challenges in a united manner.

For the first time in four or five general elections one party has got a 200+ strength in a house of 543, and a pre-poll alliance has got within striking distance of a majority on its own. Otherwise, people were getting habituated to the sights of minority governments running from pillar to post, conceding to the armtwisting of criminal elements who made it to the Lok Sabha, and forging understandings with strange bedfellows who'd support from outside and subvert from inside. With the Congress-led UPA bucking the trends and gaining near-majority, the electorate has mandated a return to a strong center, clipping the wings of fragmentary forces.

Was it all by design? I'd probably prefer to hold that back. Certainly there is a perceptible thrust towards a unified response-system (read government). An element of conscious choice is evidently there. But it was also a happenstance, of certain things coming together in unexpected ways at unexpected times, some perhaps even through the seasonality of things. Let's look at some of those factors.

The foremost was the return of the Muslim vote to the Congress coffers after almost a decade-and-half. The Muslim vote had largely deserted the Congress in the seatwise-numerically-significant Hindi heartland states after the Babri Masjid demolition. Although the handiwork of fundamentalist forces and their political front-piece, the BJP, the Muslims in large numbers held the Congress to be significantly responsible for it, and its riotous consequences. The Muslim votebank had drifted towards all and sundry, who masqueraded as the saviors of Muslims, albeit only to cynically exploit them and other socially backward classes, in order to hide their ability to deliver on the governance front. The Lalus and Mulayams of the world had a field day banking on this sentiment, conveniently using their social-engineering prowess to keep their developmental failures and widespread corruption under the carpet.

Muslims acually realized that their allowing themselves to be taken for a ride and backing of fragmentary forces (read incompetent regional parties) was actually backfiring on two fronts -- first, it was depriving them of good governance and development, perpetuating and worsening their underdog status, and second, it was facilitating the upsurge of the same forces which threatened them the most. They'd probably still have remained divided, were it not for the openly threatening posture of a rookie BJP contestant just before the elections who saw his route to glory through demagoguery. That was probably the last straw which made the Muslims shake off their indecisiveness and cluelessness, and return to the Congress fold.

The second reason was that it providentially became the final moment of disenchantment with the Left of the people in Bengal, who had bolstered it for three long decades. The Left had scored resoundingly even as close as a couple of years back and returned to power in the state. They had two things to thank for their endless rule despite the absence of anything that can be called as overwhelming support -- i) deft electoral engineering which made sure that their minimal one-percent lead in vote share was enough to decimate the opposition who fought among (and against) each other, and ii) a party machinery which held a vice-like grip on all institutions, forcing people to toe the party line for illusory favors, and also using largescale electoral malpractices, intimidation and violence to distort the electoral outcome. With progressive improvement in oversight and policing leading to the elections becoming freer and fairer, and ultimately the opposition parties joining hands, they bridged the one-percent gap, and the Left citadel crumbled. This brought a straight 30+ seats to the UPA. "Inside" seats, rather than disruptive "outside support" that it had been in the last house.

The third was the disharmony within the ranks of the parties in opposition of the UPA. They lost a lot of ground because of the internal squabbles, whereas for a long time they were the beneficiary of the exact same phenomenon within the Congress ranks, which had been going to the last few polls fighting both against their main opponent (BJP, Left, TDP, SAD etc) and also against a local, "Disgruntled Congress" (with different names). The BJP had gained a lot because of this phenomenon, in many cases by themselves aligning with the disgruntled elements. This time around, it became payback time for the BJP/Sena who were undercut in a significant way through their own dissidents like MNS in Maharashtra, Kalyan Singh in UP, and perhaps through Keshubhai Patel in Gujarat. Factionalism in the Rajasthan unit also contributed to a large extent to the BJP getting routed there. Widespread differences amongst their national executives, in full glare of the media, also exposed their fissures, which despite a patch-up job later, could not really redeem the lost ground at the grassroots. Similarly, a hopelessly divided Left house in Kerala also helped the Congress romp home.

To add to their disharmony was also their directionlessness. The BJP never really could digest that they got defeated in 2004 after being in power for six years. They convinced themselves that it was an aberration, caused largely by their own overconfidence rather than the electorate rejecting them or their opponents outdoing them, and always thought that their rightful place was in the treasury benches rather than the opposition ones. They approached parliamentary proceedings with the motivation of a player dropped from the national side and forced to play domestic cricket. For three years they simply boycotted every session in sight on one frivolous ground after another, and believed that the role of the opposition is merely to badmouth those in power, many times in the vilest language possible. Just like a player who ascribes his dismissals to poor umpiring and bad luck refuses to see any reason to improve his technique, the BJP too believed that all it had to do was show up on the pitch once more, and a hundred was guaranteed. If only...

The BJP has never understood that it suffers from serious inadequacies. Nay, it sees its inadequacies as its USP. To start with, it rests on a very narrow support base -- the Hindu insecure voter. It unendingly panders to the same clientele, which, while it does keep it as a core, committed votebank, does nothing to expand the popular support base. In fact, it alienates wide sections of the people, and parties, who become determined to keep their communally divisive policies at bay. The BJP has failed to realize that its customer base has hit a ceiling, and unless it can attract newer customers by offering a newer menu, it's doomed to stagnation and gradual contraction, because the core customers too would get jaded with the old offering.  Can somebody tell what new shots the BJP has learnt in five years? They are still playing i) POTA ii) personal attacks (first against Sonia and this time against Manmohan Singh iii) black money (which is basically Bofors repackaged).  They were so short of a programme to offer, that they decided to jump on to the opportunity presented by the terrible Mumbai terrorist attacks, by placing full-page vote-seeking ads in the newspapers the very next day. Their declared programme for the first hundred days in office is -- hold your breath -- hanging Afzal Guru.
The other opposition parties too were equally bankrupt in terms of their offering. The Left is selling -- hold your breath again -- anti-imperialism. No wonder, everybody's salivating -- they could as well sell dhotis in a fashion show. Prakash Karat's invention of an "all-stick, no carrot" policy on the nuclear deal proved quite par for the crash.  He also had the blockbuster idea of creating a "We are all Prime Ministers" club as the Third Front, which saw the electorate running for cover. TDP offered a "cash-transfer-scheme", overturning the milleania-old wisdom of a government taking money from those it rules. He promised that he has developed a secret formula for paying everyone money every month, if he's brought to power. People saw through this quackery as a cure for their ailments...

The fourth incidental cause was probably the most unexpected one -- economic growth and rural prosperity. A large number of politicians and parties who made hay on the issue of reservation of government jobs, have in this election seen their support eroding siginificantly. A strong contributor to this could be the availability of alternate means of employment, mostly engendered by economic reforms, higher crop support prices, and things like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Rural prosperity is reflected in things like sales of motorbikes, and consumer goods, which has bucked the economic downturn. So a sizable votebank which was probably going the fragmentary way a decade back has probably now gone mainstream with the Congress.

Anyway, the new government with its newfound strength has its task cut out. It has to tackle economic issues resolutely by bringing in reforms, beef up the internal security apparatus, work towards a greater spread of prosperity among all sections of the people, give boost to infrastructure in a huge way, and strengthen cooperation with other countries towards the resolution of global challenges -- economic, geopolitical and environmental. Complacency and arrogance emanating from unbridled power must be religiously kept at a distance -- the electorate is unforgiving, otherwise. Fetters removed, nobody will brook excuses any more, either.

What about the opposition? The BJP has a responsibility to give the nation a credible alternative. Every democracy needs a viable alternative. But the alternative has to be such as will be acceptable to all quarters and not merely to its core, fanatical constituency. It hardly has much time, though. If the new central government keeps performing like Shiela Dixit's, the BJP will soon discover that warming the reserve bench is the recipe for taking the flight back home. It has to stop its Gandhaari act, and smell the coffee. Else it'll pretty soon have to wind up and make way for an altogether different dispensation as the national alternative. If a house wants to rest on just one pillar, it's only so tall it can be.

Will the BJP be able to reinvent itself and expand its appeal? Or will it remain stuck in its Adv-ennui-itva?  

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