Right wing economists must welcome a UPA Government minus the left. Let’s hope the Congress does not betray its ally, the Trinamool Congress, to shake hands with the socialists who still have some more seats with them than their rival if both Kerala and West Bengal are counted, despite the rout the communists have faced in both the states.
Let us hope that 2009-10 sparkles as brilliantly in contrast to 2008-09 as 1991-92 had sparkled in contrast to 1990-91. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's first job in hand is economic reforms, held hostage by communists for five long years.
Let us also rejoice the defeat of a bundle of confusions, aka the BJP, which failed miserably to read the pulse of the nation as, egged on by an obscurantist behemoth called the RSS, it clung on to a non-performing asset — a promised Ram temple in Ayodhya — in these gloomy times of economic slowdown and unemployment. The repetition of the promise was the crudest joke possible, cracked in the milieu of thousands of people losing their means of livelihood here, there and everywhere, everyday. The massive population of salaried class, which was looking for a change, did not find in the BJP a hope it could latch on to. In all probability, in the hypothetical situation of an NDA victory, the resultant BJP-led government would have been worse. The nation has been spared the reincarnation of a monster in the form of a ghost of the late, alleged racketeer, Pramod Mahajan, from among the celebrated second-rung leadership of the party. More remarkable is the eventual realisation of my pet analogy: Lal Krishna Advani at the helm succeeding Atal Bihari Vajpayee marked a decline of the BJP in the national scene in a manner similar to the fall of the West Indies in world cricket when Vivian Richards took over the reins from Clive Lloyd. With an ally JD(U) sounding as shaky about the alliance as Malcolm Marshall was unsure of Richards’ captaincy, the result in politics couldn’t have been any different from that in cricket.
Perhaps the rank and file of the BJP too was not sure their captain could pull it off. The party cadre feared that Advani’s name was not selling any more and that it was not enough to energise the workers and supporters. Hence the suggestion of succession by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi halfway into the campaign. Whether this energised the party cadre is debatable; that it certainly conveyed the message to the Indian constituency that the BJP was not confident of its topmost leader is a fact. At a crucial juncture, the proponents of a proposed ‘decisive’ government were found not decisive enough.
The victory of the Congress is attributable largely to two factors, howsoever disputable certain aspects of their pallbearers might be. Rahul Gandhi's gambit in Uttar Pradesh paid off. While it helped revive his party in the rural and semi-urban areas, Manmohan Singh's image did well for the party in major cities. A Congress in the large state, which once determined the political direction the whole country took, is any day a far better choice than an SP or a BSP. They have had enough of two equally regressive, lawless, goon-infested parties, the people of the state must have thought. As for Singh's image in cities all over the country, the national notion that a man with a truckload of university certificates must be a saint did its bit to see the Congress romp home. The much-ridiculed low IQ of the Nehru-Gandhi scion — as also the brief controversy surrounding his university education — and the details of the career of the prime minister who, in his career as a bureaucrat since 1971 and a politician since 1991, did little more than saying "yes" to his respective bosses, are not national issues.
Also, the urban voter was no doubt impressed by a better tenor of campaign by the Congress. While the face of Advani popping up on every web page set in fatigue in the minds of voters, the television ads promoting the Congress, too, were markedly better than those of the BJP. Deserving particular mention were two advertisements. In one, a young chap was shown saying, “मैं न हिन्दू हूँ न मुसलमान, न सिक्ख न ईसाई । मैं भारतीय हूँ । और मेरा वोट भारत को … Congress को ।/main’ na hindU hUn’ na musalmAn, na sikkh na IsAI. main’ bhAratIya hUn’. aur mErA wOt bhArat kO … Congress kO (I am neither a Hindu nor a Muslim, neither a Sikh nor a Christian. I am an Indian. And my vote is for India … for the Congress)”. The theme of all the other ads of the party was simple: the economy is recovering. The first ad, howsoever sanctimonious, struck a chord. The second found an accord with the middle class, by now too tired of thinking negative in these times of global recession. They forgot that the prices of essential commodities began skyrocketing in 2006, much before anybody was talking of recession.
On the other hand, some adman, perhaps a nationalist who is nostalgic about — and is still living in — the 1960s, hired a hoary voiceover to speak for the BJP. He read out the script as if it were a poem by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar using a rhythm reminiscent of Jaishankar Prasad’s “हिमाद्रि तुङ्ग शृङ्ग से प्रबुद्ध शुद्ध भारती/ स्वयंप्रभा समुज्ज्वला स्वतन्त्रता पुकारती//himAdri tung shring sE prabuddh shuddh bhAratI/ swayamprabhA samujjwalA swatantratA pukArtI” The translation of the verse is not required in this article. To be noted are just the meter and rhythm of the lines that perfectly, albeit hilariously, gelled with the voiceover’s reading of the BJP’s script. When hardcore issues concerning the economy, such as tax exemptions on income of up to Rs 3 lakh and bringing back black money from tax havens overseas, were dealt with lyrically, it evoked more amusement and provoked less of serious thoughts.
Most television viewers asked each other each time the promo was aired, “Could you make out what that guy was saying?” The campaign was just a bit less funny than Mahajan telling a motley crowd in the 2004 campaign that Virender Sehwag had scored a triple century in the then recently concluded Pakistan series because of the NDA Government! Overall, in the past month, the BJP simply could not make out which, out of half a dozen issues it had raised, should its prime focus be. It also did not make any sense that the party should abandon the plank of fight against terrorism just because of a minor setback in post-26/11 state-level elections. The desertion of that plank made voters wonder if, just like the Ram Janmabhoomi issue, national security too was merely a vote-catching proposition for the BJP, and that it could desert it with gay abandon, should it stop paying electoral dividends.
And the Congress got away with the ‘Bharat Nirmaan’ series, even as some of its print ads were as preposterous as a road sign on the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway, beneath a non-existent but computer-simulated picture of a Metro Rail bridge, showing the airport and the ISBT in the same direction! After all, the ads went on print all over the country and people living outside the National Capital Region wouldn’t know the geography of this city. Indeed, the dream of ‘Constructing India’ was cleverly constructed.
A reason for the nation to be happy is the defeat of all those parties in Tamil Nadu that participated in the ugly rat race of trying to pull votes by giving a fillip to a sub-nationalist, extra-Indian sentiment. Shameless to the hilt, they had no qualms about shedding copious tears for a terrorist organisation, LTTE, even as the 'Tigers' were breathing their last in Sri Lanka. Needless to add, the honcho of the ADMK, J Jayalalithaa, who had suddenly discovered virtue in an Eelam two weeks ago, must wait several years more to extract her pound of flesh from an amenable regime at the Centre that she could have an alliance with. Smaller outfits like the PMK and the MDMK, whose sole agenda is greed, had miscalculated it was a pro-ADMK wave in Tamil Nadu and sided with 'Amma', thinking that was the key to continue being in power. The two being trounced, the medical fraternity will heave a sigh of relief now that Anbumani Ramadoss is no more likely to resume as the country's health minister, mercifully. And to the delight of all Tamils who take pride in identifying themselves as Indians, Vaiko will shut up... at least for a while.
The BJD has done well in Orissa. This again is a victory of the public image of an honest administrator, Naveen Patnaik, much as a section of the media may see it as a triumph of 'secularism'. They must note that Kandhamal does not hold sway over the whole of the Odiya population. And even if it did, while most converted Dalit votes may have gone to the Congress and still-Hindu tribal votes went to the BJP, the BJD got some votes from both, and almost all votes from the rest of the electorate, ensuring its victory in the riot-ravaged constituency. That the BJD won in Kandhamal too is a certificate its leaders will love to flaunt. The BJP is now complaining that after the BJD and it parted ways, the Congress did not put up much of a fight, and hence its former ally swept the polls. That’s queer! Would a Congress victory in Orissa have made the BJP happier?
For the JD(U) in Bihar, it's expectedly a clean sweep. It's a resounding verdict in favour of a remarkably better performing dispensation than its predecessor. But the UPA may not get its support to reach the magic 272 halfway mark in the Lok Sabha as Nitish Kumar's government in the state cannot survive without the crutches of support offered by 55 BJP MLAs. Orissa’s Naveen Patnaik too has clarified he’s not joining the UPA.
In Andhra Pradesh, the three-cornered contest was bound to benefit the Congress as the erstwhile reformist, N Chandrababu Naidu, had reformed himself reversely to turned quasi-socialist again, misreading the 2004 verdict. He thus had to share common ground — and, therefore, votes — with Telugu film star-turned-politician Chiranjeevi. Make no mistake, this Naidu is no longer the doyen of ‘Cyberabad’, the name the then US President Bill Clinton had fondly used to refer to Hyderabad, impressed by the sight of people applying for driving licences through the Internet, a facility and convenience even Americans do not have so far. The migrant non-Telugu-speaking masses of the state, who had so far been the TDP’s vote-bank, did not vote for the party en bloc this time. This made Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy look like — and emerge as — a reformist in comparison as the anti-incumbency votes got divided between the TDP and the Praja Rajyam Party.
Back to West Bengal, it’s a historic occasion for the Trinamool Congress to savour. The people’s rejection of confused politics is evident here too. Till the time of Jyoti Basu, there was not an iota of doubt as to what the CPI(M)-led Left Front stood for. When Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee took over, his communism was as confused as his partial capitalism. By arguing, “Where on earth will you find an ethical capitalist?” and inviting the notorious Salem Group for a facelift of the backwaters of the state, he began reforming the state’s economy on a flawed premise and a wrong note. It was a lose-lose situation for Bhattacharjee as a whole lot of veteran socialists grumbled that he — as much as his party’s general secretary Prakash Karat — was an arrogant kid off the block and not a product of a people’s movement. The opportunity was seized by the only credible opposition in the state, the Trinamool Congress, which did well this time to forge an alliance with the Congress. Is this a sign of the times to come? After all, the anti-left and pro-left votes differed by a mere 2 percentage points even when the Left Front's rule remained unchallenged for 30 years. That small gap having been bridged now, will the communist rule finally end in West Bengal?
Not so soon. Mamata Banerjee’s party has learnt just half the art of ruling the state: control villages through the hegemony and public phobia of party-backed hooligans. The other half of the Marxist art, which is to employ a band of ‘scholars’ in Kolkata and Delhi to defend and project vandalism as ‘people’s movement’ in front of the urbane audience, is yet to be mastered by Didi’s ‘brothers’. A quiz master Derek O’Brien and a ‘জীবনমুখী/jibonmukhi’ (the so-called life-oriented) singer Kabir Suman are not enough. The Trinamool needs an equivalent of the Jawaharlal Nehru University to fight its case in the media.
The rest of the country has sprung no surprises. The BJP and the Congress have done reasonably well in the respective states where they rule. That Kerala would be won by the UDF was a foregone conclusion. Delhi looks much better under Sheila Dixit than it did under Madan Lal Khurana, and that has been deciding the elections in this state for the last 10 years. For Punjab, it’s time for introspection. Its culture of rampant corruption, where no deal from getting a caste certificate to getting a passport is possible without bribing the authorities, makes any incumbent government look corrupt. The Akali Dal has therefore lost; that the results would have been the opposite if the state government had been of the Congress is a fair hypothesis. Jammu & Kashmir going to the National Conference-Congress combine is again along expected lines. The charged atmosphere during the Amarnath Yatra days subsided too long ago to benefit the BJP in the Udhampur-Doda constituency. Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat, however, haven't let the party down, its dreams of more seats notwithstanding. Rajasthan is still in the mood in which it was when it had replaced Vasundhara Raje Scindia with Ashok Gehlot. The winning parties from the northeast, as always, will side with the party or coalition that forms the government at the Centre. With little affinity for the culture of mainland India, they think this is the only way the interests of their neglected region is best served.
Southern India needs another mention. The victory of the UDF in Kerala can also be seen as nothing more than a sequel in the chain of governments formed alternately by it and the LDF. While this shows the ease with which people can oust a regime they dislike in a virtual bi-party system, this exercise of democracy is in no way as matured as that in the US where there is no necessary pattern of the Democrats and the Republicans forming government alternately. The existence of smaller Munnetra Kazhagam parties in Tamil Nadu makes the scene in the state a bit more complex. It’s time the people of the state looked up to national parties as an alternative to the DMK and the ADMK. They must bury Periyar’s ghost; there is now an almost total assimilation of Tamil Nadu’s culture with the rest of India; no Hindi-speaking ruler is conspiring with the Sri Lankan Government against that country’s Tamil population. These bogeys are better put to rest; the state deserves even better than a jingoistic pro-LTTE DMK that has to be kept on leash constantly by a saner Congress that had lost Rajiv Gandhi to its ally’s favourite ‘freedom fighters’.
Some day, India should have at least a three-party system under the wings left, right and centre, if at all a two-party system is impossible to attain in this diverse nation.
But the right is now gone… at least for a decade. Advani is expected to fade away from the national scene slowly. His retirement will be followed by the second-rung leadership taking charge, every member of which was, till the other day, squabbling to be the party’s spokesperson, and no one was sure who was saying what to the media. If the post of a spokesperson is so coveted by the BJP’s leaders, imagine how bitterly they will fight each other (and perish?) to be the next party president and prime ministerial candidate! Political observers must brace for many more dramas of the type where Uma Bharati fumed and left a room packed with journalists and partymen in a huff, at the corner of which her detractor, a darling of television, stayed calm, sporting a wry smile on his face.
It’s time for both young India and corporate India to dump the BJP, a party of unscrupulous, FDI-fearing traders for good and look for — or form on their own — a genuine right-of-centre party with economic reforms and free market topmost in its agenda. Better still will be such a party that can also be secular in the French sense. Indians have had to bear with the farcical pseudo-secular-versus-communal debate for far too long. Who says it's impossible for Indians not to be visibly religious in public life? Count the people who go to their respective offices everyday in normal shirt and trousers, sporting neither tilak, nor skull cap, nor a cross. They far outnumber the few who carry these ostentatious symbols of faith round the clock, in office as much as at home, maybe in a bid to impress upon others about their religion-inspired principles which, in reality and practice, may or may not exist.
Finally, it is time for the polity in general and the Election Commission in particular for stock-taking. The victory of the UPA is the official version of the mood of the people of India. But is this a decision by the majority of the population? Does an MP from Mumbai, where less than 42% of voters exercised their franchise, reflect that city’s sentiment as much as an MP from Kolkata, in some booths of which the attendance was over 80%? The EC bungled in a major way this time on at least two counts: holding the elections in the unbearable heat of April-May and conducting all polls in the Maoist-hit belt together. The first did not make sense after the experience of 2004 that had shown more or less the same kind of middle class reluctance to exercise its franchise. The second questions the commission’s homework and research. It’s clear that the fear factor caused by the Maoists did not strike any EC official while preparing the five-phase election schedule, as the security forces, posted to guard all the affected districts all at once, were stretched thin and not every citizen in those areas could overcome the scare of being shot dead for nothing to come out to cast his vote.
On its part, the polity must rethink the efficacy of, one, holding Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections separately and, two, advantage of having a by-and-large uneducated electorate. As regards the first, the country is forced to make do with populist economics as some or the other assembly election keeps arriving almost every quarter and utterly nonsensical sops are offered to the poor, making them poorer, as the exchequer tries to ease off the burden through additional, ever-new taxes. As for the second, it’s a national shame that an average voter still does not know that an MP is not supposed to clean the garbage in the lanes of his neighbourhood, for example. So, if the local councillor is a non-performer or the area’s MLA fares badly, the MP, if from the same party as the councillor or the MLA, must bear the brunt of the electorate’s anger.
Given this scenario, holding centre and state level elections separately is making little sense. People are still largely unaware of a parliamentarian’s role. In other words, they do not have a national perspective. Now, who will take upon himself the onus of imparting civics education to the people?
While pundits are welcome to scratch their heads off, trying to figure out a method to ensure mass-scale, meaningful votes, I am asking the new regime, shorn of the leftist baggage, a selfish but simple question, “Now that the crabs that pulled you down for almost five years have lost their pincers in the final bout, will you rise to the occasion? Can I, a humble middle class person, launch a business with least hassles and aspire to give competition to the rich?”
“You’ll live,” did you say? Bah, mongrels live too! Stop throwing crumbs at me to protect my subsistence. I am looking for a system where ‘poor’ is not a citizen’s permanent identity. But mind you, if poor is not a permanent identity, it cannot be a permanent vote-bank either. Can Manmohan Singh sacrifice this bank that EMS Namboodiripad famously couldn’t? If yes, I will vote for the Congress in 2014.
The writer is a journalist, linguist and mathematician