The 2014 India election review / A question of power

[ The Friday Times (Lahore), 16 May 2014]

When the grand parliamentary elections happen in the Indian Union, certain changes are always visible in the commentary around it. The more systemic critiques are replaced by adulation-with-minor-faults type of views. We hear less of the diseased orchard and more about bad apples. There is a reason. Elections of these kinds are periodic revalidation of the state’s legitimacy itself, much like a car’s license renewal before the expiry date. Any aspersion on the basis of continuity creates deep anxieties. The Indian Union is no exception. What is exceptional is the number of people from which it claims to get its legitimacy from, thus earning the much used, tired epithet of being the ‘world’s largest democracy’. This makes the present elections and all elections to the lower house of the Indian Union parliament the ‘world’s largest democratic exercise’. The reality makes that claim patchy at places – heavens on earth do not need legitimate worldly elections for peace and development. This does not take away the fact that a large majority of the adult citizens living in territories administered by the Indian Union government voted in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

A lot is at stake this time around – depending on the nature of the stake. What started as an exercise in cosmetic beautification of Gujarat’s tarnished reputation by government hired PR agencies after the riots of 2002 slowly grew into a united corporate cheer about Gujarat chief minister Narendrabhai Modi’s governance style. The Ambanis, the Mittals and other such paragons of 101% honest and clean business practices sang frequent paeans to Narendrabhai and the Gujarat that he had made at the biennial investors summit called Vibrant Gujarat. A few years ago, this became the site from where India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, publicly declared Narendrabhai Modi to be the best person to become India’s next prime minister. When such endorsers talk, the endorsed better walk. An ambitious one will run. The rest, as they say, is history. The Bharatiya Janata Party anointed Narendrabhai Modi as its prime ministerial poster-boy. This cut short the octogenarian ambitions of a Sindhi old man who in many ways had politically mentored Narendrabhai. Advani sulked and then relented. What followed was an unprecedented spending spree to create a larger-than-life helmsman image for Narendrabhai. The Indira Congress also spent many crores of Rupees to present its latest Gandhi as the young and youthful future of face of India. As if on cue, Delhi media has sought to make this battle for the parliament of the Indian Union look like a two-horse presidential election. The truth is, between them, the two national parties have won less than 50 per cent votes in three of the last five Lok Sabha elections. This time will only be marginally different. So-called ‘regional parties’, which are mostly presented as spoilsport in the ‘national’ scene, will again be crucial to any government formation at Delhi. What is the scope of these ‘regional’ parties in the global perspective? The West Bengal-centric Trinamool Congress (TMC) got more votes in 2009 Lok Sabha than the victorious Tories got in the UK parliamentary elections of 2010. The Tamil Nadu-centric Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) got more votes than the ruling Conservative party of Canada got in their 2011 federal election. Consider this: Post-Partition, no national party has won an absolute majority of votes, ever. The Indian Union remains and will remain a politically diverse landscape, irrespective of the terrific howls from policywallahs, mediawallahs, academics, defence contractors, security apparatchiks, lobbyists, pimps and other glittering-shady characters of all hues invested hard in the Delhi circuit. This diversity is the greatest hindrance in the smooth entry of global capital as well as cultural homogenization of the Indian Union. Such a rocky and uneven political landscape needs a wave. This time around, even sectors of the deep state has deserted the Indira Congress and put its bet on the ‘Modi wave’.

If you draw an imaginary line from Kishanganj in Bihar to Goa, you can roughly divide the territories of the Indian Union into two parts. The part to the left of this line contains much of Hindi-ized India or greater Hindia. This is where the pull of Hindutva politics is at its strongest. This is also where the politics of social justice powered by parties that organized themselves around lower castes have long kept the BJP in check after the terminal decline of the Indira Congress in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. There is a feeling that some of these levees make break in the face of the ‘Modi wave’, which might acquire great strength in the fertile communally divided ground created by the 2013 Muzzafarnagar riots in western Uttar Pradesh . This would mean that stalwart leaders of lower castes like the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party, Mayavati-led Bahujan Samaj Party, Lalu Prasad Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal and Nitish Kumar led Janata Dal (United) will mostly hold on to their core support groups and lose significant portions of their peripheral support to the BJP. That might well be true if the exit polls by CNN-IBN, suggesting an unprecedented sweep of Uttar Predesh and Bihar by the BJP turn out to be correct. This TV channel like many others has seen huge investments from Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited. CMS, an independent media research organization, has reported that in this personality-driven campaign, Narendrabhai Modi got 33.21% of primetime news telecast. Rahul Gandhi got 4.33%. Since the BJP will not get 8 times the number of seats or votes than Indira Congress, the disproportionate coverage that has been given to corporate India’s chosen successor is quite clear. The top 10 list of persona who were given most primetime media coverage did not contain a single person from the southern part of the Indian Union. It is not accidental that the south is not the BJP’s strongest territory. The urban Hindi-heartland bias of Delhi-centric media is rather shameful. More worrisome are its implications.

The urban Hindustan has thrown up the newest and probably the promising kid on the block of these elections, the Aam Aadmi Party.(AAP) Formed about one and a half years ago, upset all known political equations by decimating the Indira Congress and stopping the BJP in its tracks in the Delhi provincial elections. This time around, its charismatic leader Arvind Kejriwal has successfully projected himself as the most vocal critique of Narendrabhai Modi. He has challenged Narendrabhai in Benares, a seat that the BJP held in the last parliament and where AAP had no prior organization whatsoever. Thus every vote that Arvind Kejriwal gets is a vote won or transferred from others. The difference between the votes Narendrabhai will get above and beyond what the BJP’S ageing brahmin top dog Murli Manohar Joshi got in Benares can be attributed to the ‘Modi wave’. That is the relevant comparison. We shall see who will win but the AAP through its shrewd manoevering and its no nonsense stance on corruption has captured the imagination of a significant section of the urban youth. It really is trying to capture the historical political space of the Indira Congress and wants to position itself as the ‘national’ opposition and alternative to the BJP next time around. That is a tall order, especially given that the AAP’s stated list of enemies includes not only the BJP but also the Indira Congress, the Gandhis, the Ambanis and the newest Gujarati ‘110% honest’ millionaires, the Adanis.

On the morning of May 12th, I stood at the voting line in the Chetla area of Kolkata, the capital of Bengal. As a Bengali, my interests are most focused here. In almost all seats of Bengal, BJP is not among the top 2 forces in contention. This is broadly true for most of the regions east of my earlier stated Kishanganj-Goa line. Here the non-Congress non-BJP forces more or less hold on to their spheres of influence thought there is a huge increase in the visibility of the Modi campaign. This will surely reflect as a general bump in the percentage of BJP votes, but on the whole, in the south and the east of the Indian Union, what we have may at best be called a ‘Modi trickle’. In many places, event that hint of saffron ghairat is absent. This is not odd for a multinational super-state like the Indian Union but these elections will probably underline that fact quite clearly.

These elections kept Muslims in particular focus all through the campaign. This started at first as a part of the old Indira Congress and Samajwadi Party tactics of buying Muslim votes by fear-mongering. Among many Muslims, there is deep distrust and suspicion of a Modi government, if not outright fear. But if fear alone is able to herd a people together to the arms of the cynical fear-mongerer doubling up as protector, it is unfortunate for the community and its politics. AAP aimed to change this narrative at many places. When asked my Muslim community leaders about what could AAP do for Muslims, Arvind Kejriwal famously replied that he could not do anything special but will ensure that people from every faith are treated equally under all circumstances. This is in line with what G Shah commented on Kejriwal’s letter to Muslim – ‘As a muslim voice, dare I say that we do not want any special benefits, aka appeasement. Even if the regular / common state welfare mechanisms are made available to everyone (including us) that would be more than enough for everyone (including us).’ The loss of Muslim support might be a significant blow to the Indira Congress, which prides itself as being the sole ‘national’ embodiment of the Indian Union’s secular ethos.

During his campaign, Narendrabhai Modi assailed Mulayam Singh Yadav saying “do you know the meaning of coverting to Gujarat? It means 24-hour electricity in every village and street. You can’t do it. It requires 56-inch chest.” People of the Indian Union will soon come to know the advantages or disadvantages of pectoral girth in poverty alleviation, human rights, civil liberties and a list of other issues that almost always has required a big heart, not a big chest.

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Filed under Delhi Durbar, Democracy, Federalism, Hindustan, India, Media, Polity, Power

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