The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- False starts and grievous setbacks

Always take media headlines with a pinch of salt. For the past few weeks, newspapers and television channels have been blaring out a wisdom evidently very dear to their heart: this year’s Lok Sabha election, in their judgment, marks a watershed. The poll outcome indicates the nation’s will to establish a firm two-party system in the image of the Westminster model. Have not more than 60 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats this time been bagged by the two principal parties, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party? The rest of the seats are distributed over a wide scatter among a large number of smaller, mostly regional, groups.

The savants presiding over the media have not the least doubt in their mind: this is the beginning of a healthy historical trend, heralding political stability in the country. At this point, what is supposed to be datum tends to get tangled with wishful thinking. The worthwhileness of the two-party arrangement, the major domos among the media fervently hope, will increasingly bewitch the electorate. Should things proceed smoothly, the two major parties would, within the next ten years or thereabouts, further deepen and widen their influence. The nuisance of regional parties would then be over. Would not that be a lovely denouement? Everything would be in its proper place, the two main ‘national’ parties would alternately enjoy power in New Delhi, our breast would swell in pride when visiting foreign politicians and journalists praise this tranquil arrangement.

A fascinating landscape is being sought to be depicted. It is, however, an imaginary landscape, with scarcely any basis in facts. In this year’s Lok Sabha poll, the Congress and the BJP between them have captured only 47 per cent of the total valid votes cast, actually 1 per cent less than what they had together secured in 2004. With the Left tenuously holding on to 7 per cent of their vote share, the rest of the votes cast by the national electorate have gone mostly to regional parties. Some of the latter have no doubt grandiose national-sounding names. No matter, they represent specific regional interests: the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal is as much a regional party as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is in Tamil Nadu.

The Indian electors, it better be admitted, have a mind of their own. They do not vote according to the pattern the media would want them to. The Congress as well as the BJP are firm believers in a centralized administrative structure which accords greater priority to issues elliptically described as national; both are somewhat lukewarm to concerns that are overtly regional in their ambit. To dub such concerns as ‘parochial’ is however neither here nor there. The regional parties have not emerged suddenly out of thin air, they have proliferated — and sometimes prospered —because there was a space for them, they have pursued matters that occupy a large part of the consciousness of millions of humble Indians strewn across this vast country. These people nurse particular grievances even as they tuck within themselves particular hopes and aspirations.

The endeavour of the Left, over the decades, to germinate class-consciousness among the country’s poor has not met with much success. It has been a continuous story of false starts and grievous setbacks. Still, that does not at all mean that the issue of economic and social deprivation is without substance. Being at the receiving end of social indignities and ruthless economic exploitation is a hard objective reality, providing opportunities to various regional parties to expand their organizational base among the victims. These parties may wear the outward mask of linguistic, ethnic, caste or denominational passion. The issue gnawing at the core is still that of deprivation.

Those assembled under the umbrella of regional formations demand their due place under the Indian sun. If the problems of poverty and social inequalities fail to disappear, the regional parties are unlikely to disappear either. Crooked politicians will occasionally use the slogan of this or that regional formation to further their personal agenda. The slogan, nonetheless, will not lose its relevance.

Consider the crude fact, however unpalatable it may be. Among them, the regional parties have obtained in this year’s national poll nearly as many votes as the two main parties together have. The vagaries of the first-past-the-post system have allowed the Congress and the BJP to grab more than three-fifths of the total number of seats in the Lok Sabha. It is indeed possible to speculate what might have taken place had the BJP leadership not unleashed the Gujarat chief minister on the national podium, and, instead of ticking off Indira Gandhi’s other grandson for his foulmouthing, not patted him on the back. But these things happened.

In the aftermath, sections of the electorate here and there in both Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh scampered to desert regional parties and vote for the Congress. The distribution of the Lok Sabha seats might otherwise have been a better reflection of the relative influence of the so-called national and regional parties.

A new government has been put together almost without a hitch. A clear majority of the new MPs, reports suggest, are crorepatis. The global economic crisis is yet to be resolved, conditions continue to be gloomy in both the United States of America and Europe, employment keeps shrinking every month. It was therefore almost inevitable for India’s exports to come down. President Obama has proceeded to implement the legal provision of tax penalties against American firms with a weakness for outsourcing. The crorepatis over here, however, do not feel daunted, they have won a famous electoral victory, they float in a dreamland of their own. The share markets, it is hardly a surprise, have zoomed back to dizzy heights.

Anti-poverty measures did not, in the past, make the slightest dent in the state of the nation’s poor; such measures are unlikely to create much of an impression in the future either. These are in the nature of scratches on the surface. That national ogre, corruption, whittles away their effectiveness too. But optimism, especially optimism on the part of the comfortably placed, is triggered by a self-inducing mechanism. What is known in the jargon as the elasticity of expectations is invariably greater than unity in their case. Come what may, their good times, they think, will never end; they will continue to make money and the Sensex will continue to sprint.

We come face to face with the basics of the situation. The idea of inclusive growth — accommodating lesser beings in the development wagon — cannot but be a cliché embedded in the election manifestos of ruling parties. It hardly has any impact either on the pattern of economic growth or on the structure of income distribution in the country. For any thrust towards economic egalitarianism cuts athwart the dominant liberal notion that you must make money and still more money at the expense of your neighbours. The crorepatis cannot be blamed if they are determined to reach even high stratospheres of economic prosperity. Why else should they bother to get elected to Parliament? And if crorepatis become sahasracrorepatis, action will provoke reaction.

Regional parties, encapsulating in their testaments the economic and social demands of the underdog in different parts of the country, will spawn and spawn. The media may not like such a development; they are not the determinants of history. The Left, too, may not like it, but they have to learn lessons from history, for instance, by observing how their natural constituencies are appropriated by others.

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