The First thing the election results drive home is the sheer disconnect between the Indian elite and the Indian people. Here was a leadership that thought the ‘India Shining’ campaign would bring it success. A part of the elite – even those with the Congress party – went further than that. They believed the claims of ‘India Shining’ itself were valid and true. The dispute was over the patent rights on the shine. Did those belong to the Bharatiya Janata Party or to the Congress?
The Indian voters had very different issues on their mind. They were rejecting the National Democratic Alliance Government, which, as one poll slogan had it, stood for the “National Disinvestment Agency.” The intensity of this electoral quake rates an 8 on the political Richter scale.
At this point, the ‘feel good’ factor seems so pathetic as to require no ridicule. The ruling party even tried to co-opt the thrill of a great cricket tour of Pakistan. It didn’t work. Yet while the spin doctors have been sacked, the age of spin doctoring has arrived.
Also rubbed in yet again was, of course, that second huge disconnect. That between mass media and mass reality. Little in the media output of these past five years had prepared audiences for anything like this outcome. The polls succeeded where journalism failed. They brought back to the agenda the issues of ordinary Indians. Deeper analysis must await more data. However, some broad contours seem clear.
There is almost no government in the country that has ill-treated its farmers and not paid the price. That has hurt agriculture and not been punished. India has never seen so many farmers’ suicides as in the past six to eight years. For some, the urge to blame it all on nature is overwhelming. And yes, droughts have badly hurt people in parts of the country. But that would be missing the wood for the trees. Countless millions of Indians have seen their livelihoods crippled by policies hostile to them. Many of these applied to agriculture, on which two-thirds of the people depend. Any incoming government that fails to see this writes its own exit policy.
The politics of divisiveness and intolerance also stand rejected. In no other period post-Independence have the minorities felt so insecure. And with good reason. From Graham Staines to Gujarat, the record is a grisly one. The basic fabric of a secular society came under assault. Co-opting a few figureheads from the minorities failed to work for the BJP-NDA. People went by their lived experience, not by the lure of poll-eve lucre. And amongst all communities, people have shown they want a secular polity. Even in Gujarat, the Congress party seems to have made its gains in the areas worst hit by the bloodshed of 2002. It suggests that many Hindus, too, have counted the costs of the past few years.
Under no other national government has there been the kind of intolerance towards dissent as in the past six years. The Tehelka episode and the hyper-activism of the Censor Board are just two of many examples. The rewriting of history – often with a bizarre content – was also part of this. So too the vilification of some of this nation’s great historians. Years from now, the country will still be assessing the damage done to some of our best-known educational institutions. It’s worth remembering that much of this happened with elite consent. Until, of course, Murli Manohar Joshi got carried away. It was when he trampled on the Indian Institutes of Management, the elite’s pet institutions, that the squeals of protest began.
Dr. Joshi has been defeated. So too have been the Ram Naiks, the Yashwant Sinhas, the V.C. Shuklas and the Sharad Yadavs. The electorate has shown little respect for those we call ‘heavyweights.’
The polls also seem to show India 2004 to be a far more federal nation than before. There will be many different forces vying for political space. And that reflects the nation’s diversity. Those yearning for a simple ‘two-party’ system have a long wait ahead. One vital feature of this election was the partial recognition of this by the Congress party. Wherever it struck alliances and accommodated other forces, it gained. Now this can be termed electoral arithmetic. Even opportunistic. And indeed it is. Like it or not, it is also a negotiating of political space in a vast and diverse nation.
The poll campaign of the ruling formation was also marked by sharp hypocrisy. Appeals at press conferences and on television for decorum were followed on the ground by crude personal attacks. Indeed, this seems to have backfired in Tamil Nadu. Even apart from the crushing strength of the DMK-led alliance, the foreigner diatribe against Sonia Gandhi did not go down well. Not in a State that knows her husband – also an Indian and a Prime Minister – lost his life on its soil. A victim of mindless hatred.
At one level, elections in the past year have followed a simple pattern. With a few exceptions, the Congress has gained greatly where the BJP or its allies have been in power for some time. And vice versa. People in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are still voting against the policies of their former Congress Governments. Even the massive numerical strength of the Congress-NCP tie-up in Maharashtra did not bring them the gains it should have.
The electorate has put the new Government on notice. “Business as usual. More of the same,” won’t do. Already one Congress leader at the Centre has promised exactly that. Far from rejecting the Chandrababu Naidu model, he suggests the Congress will give the people of Andhra Pradesh “Naidu Plus.” In which case the people of Andhra Pradesh will surely give his party the treatment they gave Mr. Naidu – Plus.
Simply put, the term “reforms” is much like the words patriotism, motherhood and apple pie. Who could possibly be against any of those? It’s when you get down to defining these terms that the gaps show up. (Mahatma Gandhi was a patriot. The BJP thinks Narendra Modi is one, too.)
At the height of India Shining, our rank on the Human Development Index of the UNDP made sad reading. It is better to be a poor person in Botswana or the Occupied Territories of the Palestine than one in India. If the “reforms” mean policies that better the lives of hundreds of millions, then surely people want them. That means, amongst other things, addressing people’s rights to resources such as land, water and forests. It means making more jobs, not depriving millions of the ones they have. For some, the “reforms” simply mean mindless privatisation. The transfer of public wealth and resources to private hands. The new government needs to know that this was also a mandate against such an assault on people’s lives and rights. A glance at the fate of the so-called ‘reform-minded’ State Governments shows us this.
As long as the most basic needs of the Indian people are not met, the elite will never find the ‘stability’ they so long for. Often, this is confused with continuity. The Modi Government continuing in Gujarat does not make that State stable in any positive way. And it’s worth remembering that before Mr. Modi gave Gujarat his brand of stability, the BJP ran through four Chief Ministers in almost as many years. It even managed to bring down its own Government despite having a two-thirds majority in the Assembly.
Meanwhile the markets have been shaky for some days. It’s a mystery how the expensive analysts of Dalal Street function. If they could not factor in these outcomes into their ‘possible scenarios,’ they must be poorly informed and connected. I was assured by some in the fraternity a few days ago that Chandrababu might face ‘a little anti-incumbency’ but “let’s not forget there’s real achievement here and people reward governments for that.” Maybe we can talk to them again when they’re rescued from under the rubble.
The street analysts of Andhra Pradesh were a little better with their dark humour. “Bill Gates, Bill Clinton and Dollar Bill. Naidu has saddled us with a lot of Bills to pay,” was one wisecrack making the rounds. The reference was to the incredible borrowings of the State under Mr. Naidu. Something that never seemed to worry the well-paid analysts. Maybe the world of such analysts is driven by the fact that (as the CII once reported) only 1.15 per cent of Indian households invest in stocks.
As for the media, there is a great and urgent need for introspection. The failure of journalism was far more predictable than the poll results. For years now, the media have stopped talking to ordinary people. How on earth can they tell their readers and viewers what is going on? There are 400-plus journalists to cover Lakme India Fashion Week. Almost none to cover the agricultural crisis in any informed way. The labour and agriculture beats in newspapers are almost extinct. The media have decided that 70 per cent of the population does not make news. The electorate has decided otherwise.
(This article was published in The Hindu on 14 May, 2004)