The Largest Local Polls

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TO A world sunk in gloom, the Indian elections have appeared like a spectacular display of the northern lights in a starless sky. Its scale is mind-boggling. Out of an electorate of around 750 million, between 400 and 450 million will exercise their franchise. Voting is taking place in more than 600,000 polling booths across the country, over a mammoth period of five weeks. This is the largest mela in the world. It is no surprise, then, that the international media has flocked to India to witness and take part in it.

Post-poll euphoria Youth in Bombay after casting their votes
Post-poll euphoria Youth in Bombay after casting their votes
Photo: AP

However, asked by a BBC anchorwoman in London to characterise the elections, the leader of the BBC’s team in India hesitated before saying, “there seem to be no issues at stake”. Most Indian analysts agree. The manifestos of the main political parties also reflect this vacuum, but attempt to smother it with a plethora of stale promises that few voters even notice, let alone believe.

How can such a thing happen? Is it even possible that in a country of more than a billion people, there are no serious conflicts to resolve through the ballot box? Does harmony really reign supreme in India, or is Indian democracy so dysfunctional and its politicians so thoroughly cut off from the people that they no longer know how to articulate the peoples’ concerns? The answer is a little of one and a little of the other.

A detailed survey conducted in January by a team of analysts led by Yogendra Yadav of the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) drew a profoundly important distinction between issues and concerns. According to the study, the concerns of the people are very real and are often acute but the political parties have ceased to articulate them effectively.

Does harmony really reign supreme in India or is Indian democracy utterly dysfunctional?

Instead, they have looked for emotive issues on which to base their appeal and have so far failed to find any. The BJP, for instance, pulled out the hoary chestnut of corruption in a novel guise by claiming that Indians had $ 4.5 trillion salted away in Swiss banks and promised to bring it home. The Congress responded with the slogan that it stood for the ‘aam aadmi,’ presumably against the rich. But neither of these have resonated among voters as Hindutva did in the nineties, or the Congress’‘Garibi Hatao’ did in 1971.

But the absence of contentious issues at the national level does not signify an absence of concern. The CSDS study revealed a high degree of anxiety among the people over chronic unemployment, the sharp rise in prices of goods and services and, after 26/11, the recurrence of terrorism elsewhere in India. But it found several reasons why these had stayed out of the national debate.

The Congress’ fate could depend not on national governance but on the sum of local electoral concerns

A number of concerns are now being expressed at the state level. Among these are demands for greater autonomy, such as in Telengana (Andhra Pradesh), Gorkhaland (West Bengal), a ‘Greater Nagaland’ in Manipur, and ‘Azadi’ in Kashmir. Demands for the reservation of jobs and seats in schools and colleges for specific castes have also retreated to specific states like Rajasthan and Maharashtra.

Even intense anger over ideological issues, such as the anger that erupted in West Bengal over the forcible acquisition of land for Tata’s Nano car plant, and India’s failure to intervene on behalf of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka, is being focused on the concerned state governments and not at the centre.

At least one critically important issue that used to bedevil national politics in the past has also retreated from the national to the local stage. This is the exploitation of communal sentiment to win elections. The BJP toyed with the idea of making Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, a national mascot. But in the end it confined itself to doing so only in Gujarat where his less than sympathetic stance towards Muslims after the 2002 riots has been overshadowed by his honesty, accessibility and decisiveness in governance.

Adding all these trends together, Yadav concluded that issues had not disappeared from politics but would affect the outcome locally and not directly at the national level. If sound, this analysis bodes ill for the Congress, for its fate will depend not on how it has governed for five years but on the sum of such tendencies in the states. If the results of state assembly elections that have taken place since the previous general election are a barometer of change in public sentiment, the Congress is likely to lose because, just as it had won the majority of the state elections during the years of the NDA’s rule, it has lost the majority of state elections after coming to power in 2004.

But several facts militate against this conclusion. The first is that the absence of national issues does not signify just a weakening of the central government but also a growing all-party consensus on key issues concerning the future of the country.

THIS IS REFLECTED by the quiet disappearance of several contentious issues from the election platform. The most obvious of these is the Indo-US nuclear deal. But a far more important absence is the failure of the BJP to turn India’s alleged softness towards Pakistan after 26/11 into an electoral issue. The BJP did make a half-hearted attempt to raise the issue in the Delhi state assembly elections immediately after the Mumbai attack, but the Congress defeated it soundly then.

The Delhi defeat taught the BJP a much-needed lesson: the people were frightened. They had seen where its constant prodding at the beehive of communal animosity for 25 years was taking the country, and wanted to draw back. Another leader who has learned the same lesson is Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Orissa, who has pulled his party, the Biju Janata Dal, out of its alliance with the BJP and is fighting the election on his own. His reason is the BJP leadership’s continuing ambivalence towards the attacks on Christians in Orissa’s tribal areas by zealots in its far right wing. As a result, the 2009 elections have remained singularly free of communal exhortations, and even more free from communal violence.

Even the concentration of the people on everyday issues like ‘Roti, Kapda aur Makaan’ which the CSDS has noted and interpreted as another indicator of the localisation of politics, springs from a different cause. This is the growing demand for effective government. While meeting this demand falls under the purview of state governments, the demand itself is a national one that has already upset electoral calculations in half a dozen states in the country.

The most unequivocal indicator is the weakening of the so-called anti-incumbency factor. Since the early 1980s, incumbent governments have been voted out of power with monotonous regularity. But in recent years, the number of state governments that have bucked this trend has risen sharply. In the last three years alone, Gujarat, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh have returned incumbent governments to power and a study of the reasons shows the same factor at work: people have come to believe that their government really cares.

Not only did the Congress manage the crisis in the aftermath of the Mumbai attack with great finesse, it has initiated or enlarged dozens of programmes for the welfare, health and education of the poor. Its Achilles’ heel is that these programmes have to be administered by the state governments; if administered well, it is the party in power in the state that will reap the political harvest. That need not be the Congress. The outcome of the election, therefore, remains anyone’s guess.

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