But the cycle of hype and disappointment can corrode politics.
If money could buy a national election, then the BJP is home and dry. If corporate India could help purchase a mandate, then Narendra Modi has already been sworn in, in that nice little ceremony in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan. And if the media’s professional gullibility could create a “lehar”, then India stands joyfully restored to the decisive leadership of decisive deshbhakts. All that remains is for us all to bow our heads and say amen.
There is only one fly in the ointment: the voters of India. And the voters begin having their say only on April 7.
A Lok Sabha election is a time for legitimate partisanship and contestation. Loyalties and discipline become expendable virtues. Winnability is the only valid currency. Already, partisans are coming out of the closet and dressing up personal expediency in nobler sentiments and loftier arguments. And, this time around, we have enthusiastically allowed ourselves to be snowed under an avalanche of American political advertising techniques and are happy being mesmerised by this or that sales pitch. So be it.
But, a word of caution is perhaps not out of place. Can we summon a modicum of professional detachment and intellectual humility to remember the pitfalls of over-exuberance in manufacturing an election narrative? More precisely, are there no lessons to be learnt from the similar — but flawed — exuberance of 2004 and 2009, when runaway victory was accorded to the saffron mascots?
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Admittedly, the voter ultimately sorts out the hype-makers. Nonetheless, this hype-making does introduce a corrosive anger in the body politic. The downside remains that if and when the manufactured narrative turns out to be at variance with the voters’ preference, there will be inconsolable disappointment and personal bitterness, leading to the erosion of that precious democratic capital: the obligation of the winner and loser to work the institutional mechanism of parliamentary democracy. If our parliamentary democracy appears, to many observers of India, to have become a dysfunctional institution, it is mostly on account of the loser’s frustration and his/ her failure to abide by the rules of the game.
On the eve of the first general elections, Jawaharlal Nehru had promised the nation that “we shall accept the result of this election, whosoever wins or loses”. He had reminded one and all that “all of us naturally want the cause we represent to triumph, and we strive our hardest to that end” yet “in a democracy, we have to know how to win, and how to lose with grace.”
That “grace”, of which Nehru spoke, is becoming hard to come by as personalities have come to displace “the cause”. Consequently, the bitterness and rancour among leaders, especially those on the losing side, have come to rankle — and, rankle in proportion to the self-manufactured pre-election hype.
And, since a section of the media allows itself to become the instrument of a contrived hype, its practitioners willy nilly find themselves unable to return to their professional equanimity, and eventually get sucked into the loser’s pious bitterness. The voters’ disdainful disagreement with their predictions is seen as a personal affront. Unknowingly, a culture of intense partisanship in the polity gets abetted, and the media itself comes to prize its excessive confrontational role, losing its institutional voice in moderating extremism.
It is worth recalling the first “personality-centric” contest, in 1971. So many anti-Congress forces and individuals had so righteously and adamantly talked themselves into believing that Indira Gandhi was wrong and would be shown the door by the voters that they never came to terms with the electoral verdict. The loser did not have the grace to accept the voter’s choice, and continued to believe that Indira Gandhi had won unfairly and hence did not deserve even minimum cooperation from the opposition. A section of the defeated opposition even began giving credence to the “Russian ink” conspiracy theory.
In July 1973, Morarji Desai wrote, in Swarajya, “the elections of 1971 and 1972 were neither fair nor free and were full of corrupt practices. This has created a general fear in the country that no party can win against the ruling party as long as it is in power and that it cannot, therefore, be removed from power through elections and constitutional means. This feeling and fear are disastrous for the future of democracy in the country.”
Desai’s self-serving judgement, that the “system” had been rendered “unfair” and that the opposition would not be allowed to win fairly, was a major contributing factor in the convergence of forces, impulses and individuals that created conditions that led to the denouement called the Emergency.
Given this bad grace about the outcome of the 1971 elections, it was only a matter of time before the relationship between government and opposition broke down totally, and both sides began resorting to “take no prisoner” approaches. The opposition was not prepared to wait for another five years to take its case to the voters. Instead, citizens were invited to experience the joys of “sampoorna kranti”. Historians of that era have their favourite villains and heroes, but what is perhaps indisputable is that Indian democracy never fully rediscovered the etiquette of gentle and graceful political contestation. The winner and the loser have found it difficult to abide by the discipline needed to work a democratic system.
Mercifully, in recent decades the country has learnt a lesson or two in the art of free and fair elections and no winner can be reasonably accused of “stealing” an election. An autonomous and vigilant Election Commission has enforced a level playing field for all; incumbency no longer offers any extra heft to the government of the day. A vibrant media has ensured transparency in the ponderous process of campaigning. An aroused civil society, armed with the powers of social media, demands a vigorous voice in these rites of democracy.
Yet, the country can hardly feel sanguine that this “free and fair” electoral exercise would produce a result that will promote a post-poll civilised political competition.
While political leaders cannot be faulted for giving their best shot to sleight of hand tricks, there is no reason for those in the business of reporting, interpreting and commenting to get intimidated by this or that politician. Unfortunately, in the last few months, Narendra Modi’s every bluff and bluster has been uncomplainingly swallowed hook, line and sinker. So much so that any scenario other than him storming Race Course Road would be unacceptable to him and his aggressive promoters, irrespective of the voters’ choice.
Such presumptuousness is injurious to the nation’s health. The onus is on stakeholders other than political parties to detoxify the electoral environment. No democracy can retain its vigour and vitality if its functionaries abandon the call of moderation and fairness.
The writer is former media advisor to Prime Minister