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THESE ELECTION RESULTS COULD BE A CATALYST FOR CHANGE

So it would be wise not to extrapolate the current results on to too high expectations of a new dawn in India’s governance. There are enough analyses of the results and the trends to draw any number of predictions to suit your choosing for the future general election. But one thing should be paramountly clear. The voting public is fed up with the current state of affairs. And that fed-upness is being expressed through massive turnouts at the voting booths, higher than at any time in India’s history. On the brighter side, it is a heartening endorsement for the success of our democratic process. And the conversion of Anna Hazare’s agitation, albeit peaceful, to a parliamentary route will strengthen democracy further.

Why is the losing party not “getting it”? Why are they not projecting a vision for truer representation of public interest rather than their own patrician conviction of what is good for them? The approach towards giving access to more “rights” is sound in spirit but anyone who has tried it will confirm that it is infructuous in reality when the lengthy and expensive court processes make tangible results remote. Why then is there still obsession with statements on party reorganization rather than a focus on fulfilling the public’s wishes? How a political party organizes itself to achieve tangible results is its own executive problem, not the recipient’s concern. The public will gauge by results which it can experience and feel. To merely suppose after the election results were announced that inflation might have had an effect is a brutal underestimation of the agonizing manner in which every Indian household has been adjusting its budget for the last couple of years to accommodate what is affordable in the market. Quite simply, the voting public want greater security, both physical and financial, a more honest delivery of services which, in turn, translates into a visible reduction of corruption and criminality amongst political leaders. And if there is one further message it is that the emerging middle class can no longer be rubbished in a mistaken zero-sum game that believes only handouts aimed at poverty alleviation count. It should be evident now that largesse alone is not buying votes.

This misconception about a grasping middle class fails to realize the changing character of this significant and growing section. It no longer is, if it ever was, an aloof elite which does not bother to vote. As a typical illustrative example, the jhuggi colony adjacent to our house was sequestered from government-owned land two decades ago by migrant construction workers. These original occupants moved on, selling their dwellings to incoming domestic helpers working in the newly constructed housing colony. What were shanties then with temporary roofs have now become concrete constructions two or three floors high, many with larger floor areas than the houses which they serve. Every one of these jhuggis has a TV, refrigerator, and most now have their first small car. Their children are educated, often to business-diploma level. They will be first-time voters in the coming general elections. From my personal interaction with them, they are vociferous and frustrated because the qualifications they have earned do not entitle them to more deserving and dignified jobs than the ones they have to beg to get. Although they remain beneficiaries of ration handouts, these are usually sold on, to purchase items of higher-quality.

The Aam Aadmi Party captured and harvested this mood. And it seems to have resonance among young urban voters who feel that society is not giving them a fair deal. But the Janata experiences of 1977 and 1989 remain valid, that promises unfulfilled have a swift backlash. Today’s youth is more aspirational and will probably be more impatient. And they will want more dignity than quotas.

So the AAP should consider with caution their announced intention to expand their reach to a national level by the time of the general elections a few months away. Scaling up what is essentially still a laboratory experiment to an all-India level will be a daunting exercise in mobilizing sincere and committed support rather than attracting carpet-baggers who will sense that this is the party that now offers the new route to aggrandisement. As the larger parties are finding out to their cost, choosing candidates merely because of their winnability rather than their integrity has ramifications, part of which is rejection by the electorate. Further, it is still untested whether the fed-upness appeal extends to rural areas in the same degree, into places where education and aspirational levels are probably relatively lower.

Are these messages getting through to parties other than the two large national parties? At first glance, the macro-level picture across four states of the admittedly Hindi heartland suggests no special pattern of class, caste or religion. So, a priori, there is no reason to suppose that the same concerns would not apply to the voters of, say, Calcutta. A major difference, though, is that Anna Hazare’s agitation was largely centred in and around Delhi and so was the crucible for mobilization of opinion there.

This was accentuated by the tragic Nirbhaya rape last December and the government’s insensitive and delayed response. Whether an Aam Aadmi movement can find traction without such emotive catalysts has to be tested. The regional parties must be hoping that the time to launch such a movement is fast running out.