The whole is more than a sum of the parts. The problem of applying that adage to Election 2009, a day before the first phase of the poll gets under way on Thursday, is that it is difficult enough to differentiate the parts, but to understand the whole is uncommonly difficult.
With no uniform national swing one way or the other, we are left to trying to jury-rig an understanding by aggregating state-wide swings and trying to fit them into a single national pattern. Not surprisingly, the fit does not appear convincing and as a result we have several narratives of what may happen on May 16 when the votes are tallied.
Yet like all national elections in the recent past, Election 2009 will also mark a point of departure for our polity. It is difficult to predict just where the change will occur — in the attitude to coalitions and regional political formations, economic or foreign policy, or even age — but there will be a marked transformation. In that sense, contrary to received wisdom, there are issues in this election, many of them. And it is more than likely that there will be responses to some of them.
Among the more important will be the issue of national parties versus those based on regional or caste identities. Despite the clamour of such actors, who always make great copy for newspapers and television, the trend is towards national parties and against sectional actors. As it is, the contest is looking more of a joust between two principals — the Gandhi family versus L.K. Advani. The Third and Fourth Fronts play a supporting role since they are coalitions of equals and no leader is projected as the number one.
It is only the BJP and the Congress that matter across the length and breadth of India. The other parties have local concerns and their larger policies relating to the economy and foreign and security issues are not to be seen at all, or are visible through strictly regional filters, as is the case, say, with the Dravida Munnetra Kazgham.
The Tytler episode brought out another factor in the polity — a determination to cleanse it. Preventing Tytler and Sajjan Kumar is an expression of a desire among the people that criminalisation of politics has gone far enough and that politicians cannot be allowed to get away with murder, and most certainly not mass murder. Coming as it does as the Supreme Court grapples with Gujarat’s reluctance to prosecute those guilty of the 2002 massacres, it is an important development in the life of the nation. There have been horrific communal riots in the past as well: Bhiwandi, Jalgaon, Maliana, Bhagalpur.
But the Sikh massacre in Delhi and the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 were horrific because of the complicity of the governments of the day. For this reason, Narendra Modi, who is complicit in at least not actively pursuing the perpetrators of the mass-killing, is scrambling to “appease” the minorities by appointing a Muslim Director-General of Police.
Technology is playing the role of catalyst for many of the issues at play. It has enhanced the self-awareness of the people of the country. Formally a large percentage of the Indian population is illiterate and prone to being persuaded on issues by emotion and rumour. But technologies such as that of mobile phones which reach 250 million Indians — largely urban, but also sub-urban — and the TV, ensure that people may be illiterate, but they are not ignorant.
Related to this is the issue of age. Technology is one thing that the younger generation understands better. It is best brought out by the Samajwadi Party’s anti-computer, anti-English stand. The manifesto had been made by the old-men of the party and is an expression of a yearning for the “simple” politics of the past where an anti-English agitation could mobilise forces across the state, as happened when they began their careers as politicians.
As for the election itself, its most interesting aspect, aside from the regional colour, is the Congress gamble. By seemingly deliberately refusing an alliance in Uttar Pradesh and breaking one in Bihar, the party has gambled on the future. This did not happen inadvertently, but was a deliberate choice of the leadership that had broadcast its intentions of rejecting national level alliances in January. If the two leading parties both get less than what they got the last time, we would probably have an unstable situation that could lead to another election two years from now, and yet another one soon after. If the Congress persists on its current path, there is a good chance that it could re-establish its organisation in both these crucial states.
Political judgments must always be relativistic. So we will say that the Congress has provided a more secular government, finer economic management, bigger pro-poverty programmes and a better foreign policy. No doubt, if you remember that the best is the enemy of the good, they could have done better in all these areas, but it is unlikely that the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Left-dominated Third Front could have bested them.
High economic growth and good monsoons have helped put a little more money into the pockets of rural India where sixty per cent of our work-force resides. The relative sense of well-being is bound to benefit the Congress party, except in some states like Madhya Pradesh where the Congress leadership has not been able to make much of a dent in Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s popularity.
The party thus goes into the election with an upper hand. Economic growth has meant that there was money for the loan waiver, the enhanced expenditure on unemployment schemes, better allocations for the construction of rural and urban infrastructure. In fact the system has reached a point where money is not what is scarce, but delivery of government services.
The one area in which the Congress government singularly failed has been in the lack of administrative reform. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made this an important part of his platform in 2004. It was believed that he, who had served for decades within government, was the best placed to undertake this. But the only achievement was to provide the bureaucracy higher salaries and perks, with nothing achieved by way of getting them to become better at their jobs. As a result we are saddled with a cynical and circumspect bureaucracy whose main aim is to avoid getting their hands dirty in the real work of running this country. All their creative endeavours are directed towards creating a self-perpetuating machine that will provide jobs for themselves till the end of time.
Failure here comes up directly against the expectations of the populace. Self awareness has brought on a surge of higher expectations. So the voters do not expect just to satisfy their identity-related aspirations, but want concrete benefits, here and now. Political parties are scrambling to meet them through innovative schemes — 35 kg of rice at rock-bottom rates, free TVs, and even straight-forward cash doles. But such schemes appeal only to the desperately poor.
The 250-odd million who possess mobile phones are dreaming of their own house, good education for their children and better prospects for themselves. They want an infrastructure of better roads and drinking water, secure homes and markets, a justice system that is fair and swift. These are the parts that will give us an election outcome in May.
This appeared first in Mail Today April 15, 2009