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Brighter than a thousand netas

At Los Alamos,when the first atom bomb was tested,Robert Oppenheimer recited the verses from the Bhagavad Gita...

Written by Meghnad Desai |
May 10, 2009 12:38:46 am

At Los Alamos,when the first atom bomb was tested,Robert Oppenheimer recited the verses from the Bhagavad Gita about the viratswaroop that Krishna reveals to Arjun. As the huge explosion became a mushroom cloud,he described the light which emanated from the bomb as ‘brighter than a thousand suns’.

The sight of Indian voters is to me an awesome one. The phenomenon of millions waiting patiently outside voting booths,displaying their voter identity cards,is not something we should ever take for granted. Men and women have insisted on exercising their franchise as if all through our history there had always been a democracy. An ancient culture built on hierarchy and inequality and deference has learnt within a generation or two what it took the West centuries.

Even the Indian quirk that the poor and the rural vote more assiduously than the rich and the urban is wonderful. Of course the poor voter knows that she will only get her pittance if she votes for her vote bank neta or at least tells him that she did. The middle class gets its large subsidy,like the $50-billion petrol subsidy,without trying. How long that will last we shall soon find out.

Next Saturday,the explosion will occur and the full ferocity of the Indian voter,four hundred million plus times multiplied,will be revealed to us all. Even Robert Oppenheimer would be lost for words at this mushroom cloud. The nervousness of the leaders as the final date approaches is palpable. Firm stands taken on so-called grounds of principle about who will and who will not be welcome as coalition partners have collapsed. Every neta is loudly changing his or her tune and telling any other neta who will listen that after May 16 anything will go. There are no certainties about the outcome. Even if there were,no one wants to trust them.

What is remarkable however is that we all know that whoever forms the next coalition,there will be little radical change. Policies will broadly stay the same. Indeed whatever the rhetoric,policies have hardly been discussed. The reason is simple. What matters is to be elected and even more to be part of the government. Legislatures have long given up any creative work apart from rushing to the well of the house and making a hungama. So far we have had the less important stage of the election. On May 16 we shall know who are in the arena. Then will start the next vital stage of the election. Who will form the government?

To many people this looks like the fragility of Indian democracy or its immaturity. But in the ‘50s,when Nehru was around,many people worried: after Nehru who? It looked like India’s democracy was a one-man creation. This time around there may be a fortnight between the votes being counted and the emergence of a viable coalition. But no one is in the least bit worried about this. There is complete confidence that some coalition will come together,and,if it does not last,there will be another election.

This is what happens in mature democracies. It happened in the French Fourth Republic which lasted from 1945 to 1960. Italy has had more than 40 governments in the post-war period. No one should be worried that India will break up or lose its democracy. There is some anxiety about the character of the next coalition but this is only normal uncertainty.

This is not the achievement of any single political party or a particular leader or even a dynasty. It is the Indian electorate which has been the hero. It defeated Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. It discarded the hegemony of the Congress. It elected the BJP and then threw it out. The Indian voter is careful with her trust. Incumbents have to try hard to retain power. Large national parties have found their strength reduced from numbers of three or even four hundred to one hundred and fifty. At the same time small parties have been allowed to grow.

All that one can say to the Indian voter is: Jai Ho.

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