What fun the Indian elections are. Not just the colourful, patient lines of hundreds of voters dressed in their best outfits, smiling joyfully and gossiping as they are about to vote. The superb efficiency of the election machinery and the count which accomplishes in hours what takes days in the UK and USA will be the climax to wait for.
Yet this time around it has also been the noisiest and perhaps most angry, if not hateful, campaign I recall over the years. In a way this is the election when India is confronting all its primordial fears. Ever since the Congress signed up to the Partition on June 3, 1947, Muslims have had an anomalous position in India. They are a protected minority whose self proclaimed guardians call themselves secular.
Yet, by highlighting the minority status for Muslims, it denies them the status of Indian citizen and stops them from enjoying the rights the rest of the Indians have. Be it renting a flat in Mumbai or getting into a partnership in an accountancy firm, Muslims know that they are secondclass citizens.
No Congress government in Maharashtra has come to their aid on renting flats in Mumbai nor has anyone been prosecuted for denying jobs to Muslims and the State has not insisted on a non-discriminatory clause in employment.
Reservation is sadly not the answer. For decades the issue of Muslims has been spoken of in hush hush tones, lest the communalists rejoice at Muslim difficulties.
This time the restraint is gone. All those tensions of decades and the unsaid, indeed unsayable, things are being shouted from rooftops. Insults are flying back and forth, sometimes self-defeating. The BJP’s manifesto is denounced by the Congress as both deeply communal and a ‘copycat’! Amit Shah gets tangled in an argument which got more complex than he is used to handling.
Azam Khan predictably complains of Muslim soldiers being ignored for their sacrifices in Kargil. May be true, but why wait 15 years to complain about it? Narendra Modi is denounced in unparliamentary language as a goonda or threatened with butchery. Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi gets into a debate with Shabir Ali as to who is a good BJP Muslim! Every party denounces others as corrupt while inducting own corrupt candidates. Anyone not convicted of corruption is innocent, goes the Adarsh argument.
Modi had come to the fore declaring himself a candidate for good governance and development. He talks about the recent failures of Congress and promises to speed up growth. He avoids talking of temple or of the Hindu-Muslim issue. This makes his opponents furious so they speak of communalism increasingly as voting comes near.
The hidden issue of Indian polity is now out in the open. The imam of Delhi Jama Masjid agrees with the Congress cry of ‘Muslims in danger’. Is this communalist or secular? Should Rajnath Singh appeal to the Shankaracharya to promise all Hindu votes to the BJP? Will he go to jail if he does? Who knows and who cares? The bottom line is: Will it win votes?
Speaking of vote banks, Jats are now officially OBC. Soon no Hindu group except Brahmins may be left outside the OBC category. Why in a secular republic are Hindus allowed reservations, but Muslims are unable to get them? Should India not scrap Mandal and base affirmative action on objective criteria of social and economic deprivation?
The question when all is said and done and the results are out on May 16 is: Will India face up to the 67 years of treating Indian Muslims as a special case and Hindus as a set of pigeonholes deserving reservations? The Mandal mentality grew because of economic stagnation during the first 42 years after Independence when socialist economic policy was busy building machine factories but not creating jobs for the millions. Only government jobs were growing and hence, the OBCs aimed to secure those. Once the Congress majority ended in 1989, Mandal became policy. Twenty three years of economic reform have not reversed this anomaly.
Can we now get an economic policy which can create jobs for all without reservations? Can India ditch its past and go forward?