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ELECTION LESSONS

Decisive electoral results in parts of the Hindi heartland call for thinking about the campaigning that must inevitably begin for elections in 2004. Delhi has decisively delivered its mandate for good governance against the Bharatiya Janata Party that dominates the National Democratic Alliance. It has shown that a state government, at odds with the Central government, can still work with popular sanction.

Majorities in the other states were not satisfied merely with Ashok Gehlot’s sincerity or with Digvijay Singh’s vision or with Ajit Jogi’s street-smart efficiency. People have been swayed by factors such as Jat casteism in north-west Rajasthan; the semi-feudal appeal of a maharani with the whole weight of the sangh parivar and its 200 Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cadre from Maharashtra. There was also the weakness of the Congress’s “soft Hindutva” line googly, bowled — by Singh’s own admission — against a redoubtable Hindutva campaigner, the present chief minister in Bhopal with her relentless harping on the other weaknesses of the Congress development programmes. In Chhattisgarh, voters were not persuaded by the electoral gimmicks of Jogi that earned him the election commission’s censure, or by his sting of one BJP leader’s corruption, which backfired.

Voters outside the more literate and thinking population of Delhi were swayed by a calibrated programme in which not Hindutva but “strategy” was needed to bring the incumbent authority to disrepute, whether it had governed well or not.

What was lacking was a unified Congress ideology, coordinated by a disciplined leadership working as a team and not merely on the reputation of separate pre-eminent figures, without a clear programme articulating what would follow if they won. The Congress could not project a national programme. The clear ideology of Hindutva, of chauvinist militarism, of subordination to the US superpower in international affairs, control over party cadre and a new stress on welfare economics as well as populist benefits is what the BJP has come to represent through a skilful working of the coalition system of government.

The results have been a sharp popular retort to Congress complacency that it could run the states while leaving the business of the nation to others. It is not yet clear indication that the BJP has anything better to offer beyond finishing the agenda of Asian regional power status, on the basis of liberalization and market-friendliness, which Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao began from 1984 till 1997. Atal Bihari Vajpayee has fulfilled his own dream, about which I was told by the late Professor Rashiduddin Khan, his fellow member of parliament. In an United Nations delegation in 1978, Vajpayee told Khan in New York, sitting in Nehru’s chair, that he would be accepted as a statesman of Nehru’s stature.

In the Nineties, the sangh parivar has dealt with the entire Congress in the way Sir Robert Peel’s Tories dealt with the Whigs after the British Reform Act of 1832 — “they found the Whigs bathing and ran away with their clothes”. Minus Hindutva, the BJP is merely what the Nehruvian Congress was in the Fifties and the Sixties — certainly not leftist, but with its rightwing firmly under control, centrist to the core. There will surely be an attempt to project this in the strategy for the elections of 2004.

History has to move forward or its flow becomes a stagnant cesspool. In the mid-twentieth century, with the Indian state in the throes of national infancy, truncated by Partition and coping with unfinished Transfer of Power, the compromises which Jawaharlal Nehru made between rightwing democracy and socialism were inevitable. They provided stability to India. The circumstances are different today. Non-alignment in diplomacy, a bargaining counter that gained India many allies during the Cold War, is no longer the easy negative way out for the Asian power that the Congress constructed after the Eighties, and on which the BJP now takes its posturing stance in foreign affairs. It is necessary to free the nation from its abject adulation of America’s military power. A stand is necessary similar to that of other regional powers, such as China, France, Germany or even Iran, through far more proactive multilateral strategic dialogues with the forces of Eurasia, Africa and Latin America.

It is necessary to explicitly work out arenas of the public sphere in which private enterprise can work better than the sick industries of the public sector, and those in which social costs have to be borne for the benefit of the under-privileged and the lower-middle classes. Without a sharply defined programme of economic reforms, capitalist growth — which today burgeons for the benefit of mainly consumerism and the tertiary sector of merchandise and services — will roll into the predatory clutches of asset-strippers, building speculators and mafia politicians.

Clarification of ideology and strategy can only come from a party, or at least a front of like-minded politically conscious people, through adequate leadership at different levels — mass base, intermediate district and state levels and sufficient national leadership. The BJP appears to have developed this, though it is reputed to be too committed, whether under Narendra Modi in Gujarat or through Pramod Mahajan’s and Arun Jaitley’s election management from Delhi, in following what is believed to be the “CPI(M) model” of digging into the capillary arteries of civil society, local self-government, education, the legal profession and governing bodies of various public institutions with committed cadre who use these to keep party control of the entire civil system, thus obviating prospects of democratic defeat.

The Congress that is perceived as the only alternative, even to lead a coalition to unseat the NDA, has no such unified discipline. An obsolete dynasty is in nominal charge. There is a total incapacity to permeate civil society in the same way as the generation of the Mahatma, Panditji and the Sardar did through the freedom struggle. To an electorate concerned with issues of the moment, and of the immediate future, the choice appears to be between voting for a party of order as distinct from a party of diffuse choices. Sonia Gandhi did not have the heritage or the experience of making popular choices about public welfare.

Thus the BJP could don the robes of the party of order. To begin with, it did this in 1998, when it detonated a nuclear device developed by the Congress, and then proceeded to make chauvinistic capital out of the Kargil war. It continues to do this by going for peace with Pakistan under the US aegis, a policy devised by Rao’s diplomacy, and then using feel-good factors in society and economics to swoop through the state elections.

The public mood is one of disgust with politicians as a professional group which is supposed to be venal, nepotistic, hooliganized and floating in black money. “Hang the lot” was the reaction of an interlocutor in a recent Bengali television chat show, castigating the role of all parties in the recent “Bihari kheda” riots in Assam. Short of putschism, the people never hang politicians. In nihilistic moods, they often vote against parties with decentralized authority in favour of the most orderly one available. We only have to read the electoral history of the last days of the Weimar Republic between 1929 and 1932, that is before Hitler turned Germany into the Nazi state, to see how this happens.

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