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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Fifth Column: Petty politics, big issues

Religious divisions and caste always play a part in Indian elections but this time they seem to have been deliberately inflated in the hope that voters forget their real problems.

Written by Tavleen Singh | Published: December 2, 2018 1:58:21 am
Rahul Gandhi Congress President Rahul Gandhi addresses a public meeting. (Photo Source: PTI/File)

The president of the ‘secular’ Congress party is often seen in temples these days encircled by Hindu priests. But, what enthralled me about his visit to the Brahma temple in Pushkar last week was that it was here that a priest anointed him as a Kashmiri Brahmin with the ‘gotra’ Kaul-Dattatreya. Was this anointment considered necessary to his political future because a BJP spokesperson taunted him about it? Surely, as the president of a party that wears its ‘secularism’ as a badge of honour, it would have been better for Rahul Gandhi to not respond at all to this stupid taunt.

But, when the Prime Minister himself has taken to making stupid taunts into big political issues in the election campaign for the five states, whose results will come on December 11, it is hard to blame anyone else. Minor Congress leaders made a couple of very stupid jibes about Mr Modi’s parents. He turned them into huge issues at his rallies. “My mother who does not know the word ‘rajneeti’, who spends her whole day in prayers, has been dragged into politics. Why? Because they cannot take on Modi.” The question really is, Prime Minister, why you felt it necessary to respond at all?

Then we have the BJP president turning his campaign rallies into referendums on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Has he not noticed that the Dynasty has been out of power for four years? The referendum already happened in the form of the Lok Sabha elections in 2014. So is there really any point now in making sneery remarks about ‘Maun-mohan Singh’ and banging on about how the Congress party has been turned into a private limited company?

It is as if both our main national parties are competing frantically to distract attention from the sad truth that they have nothing new to offer voters. From the secular camp come the same stale charges against Modi that have been made over and over again in the past four years. While looking through my notebooks from the 2014 campaign I noticed that the ‘Ambani-Adani’ charge has been made by Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal since the day that Modi came to Varanasi to file his nomination papers in this city. Similarly, what has been repeated ad nauseum is that he is “stealing” money from the poor to give to a “handful of his rich industrialist friends”.

State elections are usually won and lost on the performance of state governments. This is almost the first time when the performance of chief ministers has become secondary to the trivial concerns of national leaders. Religious divisions and caste always play a part in Indian elections but this time they seem to have been deliberately inflated in the hope that voters forget their real problems.

There are real problems. They stare you in the face when you travel in rural parts of the states in which elections are being held. In rural Rajasthan water is a huge problem, especially in western regions of the state where the rains failed this year. After two days of travelling in rural Barmer and Jaisalmer I was so horrified by the extent of water scarcity that I felt guilty taking a shower at the end of my tour. Water is so fundamental a human need that it should shame both the BJP and the Congress party that they have failed to deal with it. In rural Madhya Pradesh the biggest problem is unemployment. Wherever I travelled in these two states, I found that the one unifying problem is the absence of jobs.

Last week farmers from all over India marched to Delhi to draw attention to agrarian distress. Their leaders talked of better minimum prices for crops, loan waivers, higher subsidies and lower taxes on farm inputs. Almost nobody mentioned jobs. This is truly unfortunate because the truth is that agriculture cannot provide any more jobs. Land holdings are too small now to sustain the number of Indians who depend on them and there has been a scandalous lack of investment in rural services and industries that would create jobs. If the Prime Minister had pursued his ‘rurban’ idea of providing urban facilities in rural India, things may not have been so bad.

Is this the reason why non-issues have been made into big issues by both national parties in this election campaign? It certainly seems that way. But, when voters cast their votes they are unlikely to be voting for the Congress because Rahul Gandhi has now discovered that he has a ‘gotra’ or for the BJP because of sympathy for the Prime Minister’s parents. They will vote for the political party they believe will make a real difference to the degraded quality of their lives. They cannot afford to choose the wrong party because they know that they pay too heavy a price when they do.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh

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