Elections. And, once more a time to talk of ‘cabbages and kings’. As I watched the Chief Election Commissioner announce dates for polling last week, I found myself thinking how different the mood is this time. In 2009, when the Sonia-Manmohan government won a second term, it was, in my view, for two reasons. The first was that when the choice for prime minister became between the good doctor and the BJP’s man of steel, Dr Manmohan Singh looked much better. The second was that because the economy was booming, there was a buoyant, seductive hope in the air. A sense of possibilities, a certainty of things getting better for India, and this was especially true among the urban middle class. So it was from the cities that the Congress got its extra seats.
This time we go to the polls in a mood of bleak despair. There is a sense of drift and failure that frightens those Indians who are not committed Congress voters. If Narendra Modi is twice as popular as Rahul Gandhi, as recent polls indicate, it is because of an overwhelming belief across India that the country has been leaderless for a long while. Sonia Gandhi’s decision to play Noor Jehan behind the throne while waiting for her son to grow up was a bad one. This became painfully obvious in Singh’s second term because, when he realised that he was only a regent, he became silent and removed and so obviously subordinate to Rahul that it was embarrassing.
Had our real prime minister, Sonia, come forward and accepted responsibility for decisions and laws imposed on the government by her personally, things may perhaps have worked better. This did not happen as she chose instead, on account of her mysterious illness, to fade into the shadows herself. So rogue ministers became unbridled and incompetent ones got away with criminal incompetence. Unfortunately, this has been especially true in important ministries like Defence, Home and External Affairs, where qualifying depended not on merit but on loyalty to the Dynasty. Loyalty, alas, is of absolutely no use when it comes to matters of governance, so the sense of the Government of India cruising along on autopilot enhanced the general sense of drift. This happened at a time when the rupee started to lose its value, the economy began to slow down and when corruption scandals started tumbling out of the cupboards of senior ministers. It did not help that when these crises occurred, our two and a half prime ministers had nothing to say between them.
Then there is this new factor that has come into play. From conversations with people I meet on my travels, I have discovered that there is a deepened awareness of what can be expected from governments. Those times when a leader’s ‘charisma’ could swing elections have been replaced by an increasingly aggressive demand for real governance. People will continuously vote out governments when they see that their lives have not improved, and in the past five years things have definitely not improved for anyone. Rich Indians feel the decline because of disappearing investments and in the stalling of infrastructure projects. So they hang on to their money or invest it in other countries. Middle-class urban Indians feel it in the drying up of jobs and the poor feel the pain of rising prices more than anyone else.
It is because of this general disgruntlement that Modi has managed to emerge as a national leader in so short a time. And, it is because of this disgruntlement that Arvind Kejriwal has positioned himself as a messiah who has been sent by the gods to cleanse India of corruption. He may not have been able to do anything for Delhi in the governance department, but he is still popular enough for TV reporters to follow him in droves as he wandered about Gujarat this week picking holes in Modi’s development model.
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The purpose of this excursion appears to have been to paint Modi in the same colours as the Congress, in the hope that voters would see only Kejriwal as the shining new hope in a landscape of corrupt leaders. He may not succeed in this, but his targeting of Modi rather than Rahul indicates that he knows who is more likely to be his real rival if he wants to become prime minister himself. Or could there be other reasons? Could it be true that he is the Congress’s B-team?
It does not matter anyway because the only thing that can be said for certain now is that the Sonia-Manmohan government is on its way out. When it goes, there will be few people who will mourn because they have presided over a wasted decade. The next prime minister has his work cut out for him.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh