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Sum of so much trivia

Election season in the world’s largest and most diverse democracy ought to be the perfect stage for a display of leadership...

Written by Dhiraj Nayyar | April 9, 2009 11:54:00 pm

Election season in the world’s largest and most diverse democracy ought to be the perfect stage for a display of leadership — old and new — for an engagement with big ideas and for big conversations. Unfortunately,the summer of 2009 isn’t turning out to be quite the show that it was hoped to be.

Two features of the election season have emerged clearer than others. First,that there is now an almost singular focus on arithmetic,rather than leadership,debate and ideas — this singularity of focus plagues almost every major and minor political party. And second,the political leadership has entirely failed to put on display real leadership — the kind that leads citizens to better things. What we have seen so far is,instead,a fiery display of bigoted and narrow-minded rhetoric combined with banality and a complete lack of substance from the leadership across party lines,on the issues which are of real importance to the country.

Consider first what the obsession with electoral arithmetic has led to,in terms of cross-party alliances and inner-party strategies. It is instructive to perhaps look at the case of the Left parties,only because they claim to consist of parties which function on points of principle,and not simply a craving for power. The Left parties also say that they are different from the Congress and the BJP and promise change. Do they?

The Left parties,to take an example,fashion themselves as the only true defenders of secularism — that’s why they struck an alliance with the Congress-led coalition in 2004,to keep the communal NDA out. Now,caught on the wrong side of public opinion in Kerala,they have chosen to ally with Islamic fundamentalists,just to win a few more seats — how “different” is that? Also,threatened with irrelevance at the national level after they withdrew support to the UPA,the Left parties have been quick to ally in a “third front” with former NDA/BJP partners like the TDP,the BJD,the AIADMK and the BSP,all of whom not only carry what the Left would usually view as a “communal” taint,but who also supported the pro-free market,pro-US policies which the Left vehemently opposes on principle. But it seems principles are as flexible as alliances.

Other parties in the mainstream have never hidden their pragmatism — a positive spin on opportunism — and so can hardly be blamed for forging or breaking alliances which will maximise their own bargaining power,all irrespective of ideology or principle. A quick point on the Congress party here,which seems to have misread a significant political sentiment in its blind quest for winnability,by fielding the tainted Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar from seats in Delhi — another example of misguided faith in electoral arithmetic above all else.

Overall,the scenario is a free for all,which will lead up to a grand post-poll bargain bazaar. To be in the best bargaining position,parties will not hesitate to undercut even those parties which they are destined to ally with come May 16 — look no further than the Congress,Mulayam,Lalu,Paswan episode.

All this may have been less frustrating for the average citizen — who must admittedly do better than hurling a shoe at a point of sharp disagreement or unhappiness — if at least some of the bigger parties were engaging the voter with a positive agenda for governance or change. But,unfortunately,leadership has swung between extremist positions on the one hand and banality on the other.

The BJP’s agenda has ironically not been set by its top leadership but by a vitriolic,minority-hating 29-year-old,whose public rhetoric is condemnable in the strongest terms. Yet,the BJP,hobbled by an uninspiring top leadership,has for the moment decided to hitch on to Varun Gandhi’s agenda of hatred and negativity instead of trying to forge an alterative leadership vision which would have required sidelining Varun first.

It’s an even greater pity that prominent opponents like Lalu Prasad choose to respond with similar hate rather than rational argument — hardly a sign of mature leadership on the other side. Then consider how opportunist politicians like Mayawati choose to further politicise (in a negative way) the issue and polarise the electorate by unjustifiably invoking the draconian National Security Act on Varun Gandhi. Like it or not,this has become the big issue of the campaign.

The immaturity of the political leadership was also on display in the response of the Akali Dal to grant a monetary award to the journalist who flung a shoe at the Union home minister. While the issue of justice to the victims of the 1984 riots is a very important one,it hardly gains credibility on the back of an immature and illegal act of shoe-throwing. The Akali Dal could surely have taken up the issue without rewarding the person behind that ugly incident.

In the midst of all this,you could be forgiven for thinking that there are no pressing issues facing the country. Anywhere else in the world,the economic downturn,which has now also hit home in India,would be the focal point of an election. Yet,none of the major parties has much weight in the sections on the economy in their manifestos. That is perhaps why there isn’t much debate either — how can there be in the absence of substance? There is barely a passing mention of new economic reforms — perhaps that because parties think that reforms don’t get votes. But smart populism surely does. Still,none of the major parties have come up with any new populist ideas either — old ideas like subsidised rice and wheat still dominate. The one exception is perhaps TDP’s proposed direct cash transfer scheme for the poor,but that too hasn’t sparked the kind of debate a proposal like that ought to. It’s a great pity then that even a serious economic downturn has failed to spur fresh thinking in party leaderships.

So,the 15th general election,set to begin next week,seems destined to be dominated by arithmetic,bigotry and tired old ideas in different degrees. Real leadership,original ideas,and passionate debates — a.k.a. what the voters want — will,it seems,have to wait for another election season.

dhiraj.nayyar@expressindia.com

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