Let the games begin

The peculiar dignity of this election is voters will have the last word. But the last laugh?

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published:March 2, 2009 12:11 am

Politics,they say,is our national religion. The most important liturgy of this event,national elections,are about to be notified. The purpose of liturgy is simultaneously communion and elevation. It is the form through which our identity as a people is expressed; it is the moment where we,at least for a moment,are elevated with a sense of our own power. These effects are real and not to be underestimated. And this election is,in crudely political terms,as exciting as it gets. The outcome is very open,subject to so many small contingencies: an alliance here,an alliance there; right candidate selection,intelligent seat adjustments. Six weeks is a long time in Indian politics,and it is also an election that could be transformed by another external shock,or attempts to foment polarisation domestically. We often wonder what the issues in the election are going to be; what are the wishes that lie behind this liturgy. But this is a somewhat misleading way of putting the matter. A slowing economy may be an issue,as might be our security anxieties. But it is not clear which party benefits from these being issues. Elections are about relative merits of candidates and parties,not issues in a straightforward sense. For all our complicated analysis,the honest truth is,a range of outcomes is possible.

But as with most liturgies,we wonder whether this sense of empowerment will last beyond the ritual itself. There is already a sense in which the menu seems very limited: there are few good causes in the fray and possibly even fewer good men. The biggest challenge all parties have is simply that they too project the sense that this is really all about the ritual; their sincerity and seriousness are difficult to project. Arun Shourie may valiantly try to do a clinically clear dissection of the UPA’s economic non-performance. But his party has never given any indication that it cared much about those issues during the last five years. The Congress will trumpet the aam aadmi. Yet the most consequential legislation for Indian farmers,the Rehabilitation Bill,was passed without virtually any discussion and barely a quorum. Both parties will make a lot of hay on national security issues. Yet the degree of their seriousness is reflected in the fact that all we got after Mumbai was token legislation,an insipid speech from the prime minister,and a leader of opposition whose schedule was so complicated that they could not work out a joint appearance with the prime minister to reassure the nation that security is above politics. The secularists will easily give tickets to those who,till yesterday,were religious bigots; the anti-secularists think God is a tap you can turn on and off. The point is that in this election the guiding question will not be causes or people. It will be: are you serious?

There is also something comically post modern about the leadership issue. The lauh purush Advani is valiantly trying to connect with young voters by creating a virtual reality,and endorsing that most post modern of institutions: the gym. Ideologically he is reaching back to Gandhi. He is endorsing the Ram temple but belatedly disowning the Ram Sena. He is experienced enough to know all the tricks,but seems often to miss the point. But,as unpalatable as this might be,he is diminished by a looming presence in his own party: Narendra Modi. He is one politician who no one has accused of not being serious. Rahul Gandhi is in an amazing trap. He seems to confuse sincerity with seriousness,often declaiming against Arjun Singh’s policies on education,but not doing a whit about it. For all his freshness,he is so much a reminder of the old weaknesses of the Congress: a well intentioned leader sitting idly by as his party destroys all institutions and lets all kinds of divisive forces play havoc with India.

But the field is littered with so many talented politicians,once such repositories of hope. The communists have frittered away a golden opportunity to revive a genuine left. Mayawati is another politician who is utterly serious. She has grasped a central truth about politics: that to mobilise people you need to inculcate a sense of identification with the party. Her own party liturgy,the Jai Bhim greetings,the statues,the omnipresence of the party have been quite clever. But the mantle of social empowerment has been overlaid with a version of “bahubali” politics: outright thuggishness and extortion. Let us not fool ourselves about how much disfigurement this social revolution will carry. The great Lohia’s party,the SP,is reduced to brokering amongst the moneyed classes and wearing the mantle of caste on behalf of the most empowered. Sharad Pawar may yet play spoiler for Congress. The kindest thing said about him is,he wins no matter who wins in Maharashtra. He has silently connived in a dangerous politics of Maratha nationalism,blurring the lines of whom you trust. The younger generation in politics has yet to be tested; so far they have distinguished themselves by a politics of avoidance: avoid Parliament or sticking your neck out.

There are bright spots. Some might name Lalu on a learning curve,ironically stopped in his tracks by another on an amazing learning curve,Nitish Kumar. But this is an election without the great reconcilers,without a tinge of idealism,without minimal ideological coherence,without the passion commensurate with that noblest calling,politics.

The first minimal test for the parties will be candidate selection. In some ways there is something refreshing about the search amongst parties to field celebrities: at least it is an open acknowledgment for what politics is about. Then there is the other side of the spectrum: more than 20 per cent of MPs have serious criminal charges against them. It is unlikely that any political party will volunteer to deny them tickets. Most political parties do not have even well institutionalised mechanisms for determining who are popular choices for tickets even within their own party; it is hard to imagine how they will come to judgments about what connects with voters.

The celebration for democracy will be for real. Voters will have tough choices to make; and after the elections we will all pay a tribute to our own sense of discrimination and judgment. It will be the peculiar dignity of this occasion that the voters will have the last word. Whether they will have the last laugh is another matter.

The writer is president of the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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