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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 17, April 11, 2009

Beyond Election-season Trivialities

Editorial

Sunday 12 April 2009, by SC

As the country approaches the 15th general elections next week, trivial issues are dominating the scene making the poll exercise the most bizarre in post-independence India.

Five years ago, in 2004, there was one issue before the secular forces everywhere: to somehow defeat the BJP-dominated NDA so as to dislodge it from power; they were spurred by the urgency to act decisively, given the enormity of the danger springing from the growing communalisation of the polity as manifest in the Gujarat carnage of 2002—and in this endeavour the seminal role was played by Congress President Sonia Gandhi whose tireless anti-BJP campaign across the length and breadth of the country coupled with direct empathy with the suffering common citizen, the aam aadmi, especially in the countryside, finally bore fruit and the ‘Shining India’ dispensation’s high-tech propaganda blitz having failed to carry conviction with the electorate, the NDA was voted out of power. The BJP leadership today attributes the NDA’s 2004 defeat to self-complacency and overconfidence on its part but the reality is that without concerted efforts by all the secular forces, and Sonia Gandhi in particular, the NDA could not have been made to bite the dust at the hustings. After all, the BJP and NDA were stronger in 2004 than in the 1999 (when they returned to power quite convincingly after having been outvoted on the floor of the Lok Sabha); but what helped consolidation of the secular forces in 2004 was the agonising and frightful experience and trauma of Gujarat 2002, and it is this consolidation which made the maximum contribution towards guaranteeing the BJP’s exit from the corridors of power following the NDA’s inability to once again garner a majority in Parliament.

This time around the issue of fighting the communal forces has gone into the background. The secular forces are divided with the Left having snapped its links with the Congress and withdrawn its outside support to the UPA in protest against the implementation of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Now the Left’s slogan is: “Set up a non-Congress non-BJP government at the Centre”. How far that is a practical and viable proposition is no doubt a moot question since the numbers of the Third Front would not add up to a majority in the Lok Sabha. In that setting it stands to reason that even if the Third Front constituents get more seats than both the Congress and the BJP (as of now highly unlikely), they would be able to get past the half-way mark in the House only if they enlist the support of the Congress or the BJP (the latter eventuality being next to impossible). However, what is eminently possible is that with the Third Front fighting the Congress in a no-holds-barred contest, the BJP would be the net gainer notwithstanding all the problems the latter currently faces. Regardless of what the opinion polls may say, such an outcome not only cannot be ruled out, it is very much within the realm of possibility. And this possibility would become brighter if one takes into account the approach of the “Fourth Front” parties (the SP, RJD and LJP) towards the Congress in the elections—despite their public protestations in support of the UPA they are bound to cause maximum damage to whatever limited prospects the Congress has in the two States they are of consequence, namely, UP and Bihar.

Even while asserting that the BJP’s prospects of coming to power at the Centre were quite bleak this time, CPI General Secretary A.B. Bardhan, the seniormost Left leader in the country today, in an interview to this journal last week (Mainstream, April 4, 2009), did not minimise the danger emanating from the BJP brand of majoritarian communalism to the Indian polity. “The BJP threat has not receded; witness Varun Gandhi’s hate-speech,” he underlined. In Jawaharlal Nehru’s time or during Indira Gandhi’s reign, such pronouncements as have been made by Varun—amounting to an unalloyed communal assault on the Muslim minority—would have had no effect whatsoever. Today the situation has turned radically different: after initially dissociating from Varun’s remarks (which he himself denied in public without making any effort to prove the validity of his contention that the video showing the speech was ‘doctored’ thus letting the Election Commission pass strictures against him), the BJP top brass defended him to the hilt which goes to convey that Varun’s hate-speech does have takers in today’s India, an alarming development from the secular standpoint giving a measure of the erosion of the secular democratic principles in the polity of 2009, thanks to the damage caused by the BJP’s uninterrupted six-year rule in New Delhi as well as the successor Congress-led UPA Government’s total apathy and indifference on the question of taking rectificatory steps to minimise the damage to the extent possible.

At one level the hate-speech of Varun Gandhi was an attempt to bring into focus a trivial issue since the Muslims in Pilibhit (constituting a bare 20 per cent of the electorate) do not pose any threat whatsoever to the Hindus there. At another level the BJP’s acrobatics on Varun’s utterances provided a brilliant testimony to its eventual recourse to ‘vote-bank politics’ (seeking to garner support from Hindu communalists among the electorate, not an insignificant force in the Hindi heartland these days, under the directive and guidance of its mentor, the RSS). The Congress and other secular forces have no doubt condemned the pronouncements but beyond that they have done precious little in terms of launching an ideological crusade against the pernicious mindset those remarks represent. This once more exposes the weakness or lack of vision of those who claim to be standard-bearers of secularism in the country at present.

If Varun raked up a trivial issue that has little or no relevance in the light of contemporary realities (like the global economic meltdown and its inevitable impact on India), the invoking by the ruling BSP in UP of the National Security Act (NSA) against Varun also amounted to trivialising a serious matter (while misusing the Act’s provisions) and giving the young BJP candidate an importance he hardly deserved. On top of it, Laloo Prasad sought to match Varun’s rhetoric by employing similar hate remarks that only lowered his stature while revealing another level of degeneration in electoral debates. The “Fourth Front” stalwarts were not to be left behind. Their various utterances—the jibes of SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav at an administrative official engaged in the election process as well as his Man Friday Amar Singh’s public exchanges with party associate Azam Khan, expression of anguish at his party chief’s moves to snub him or oblique references to the Congress—also fell in the same category of trivialised politics. Kerala CPM chief Pinarayi Vijayan’s painstaking efforts to woo an outright Muslim fundamentalist in the Ponnani constituency too was a transparent illustration of election-time trivialisation of a political battle to garner votes (which can at worst be characterised as naked opportunism), something that has invited unequivocal denunciation by Left-leaning activists of impeccable integrity owing steadfast allegiance to secular values.

Against the backdrop of such a depressing pro-poll scenario has come the news of the arrest of Maya Kodnani, a BJP leader and till the other day a Minister in the Narendra Modi Government of Gujarat—she has been booked for her alleged role in the massacre of over 100 Muslims in Naroda Patiya and Naroda Gam during the carnage of 2002 that shamed the State and whole of India in the wide world. This arrest is the product of a sustained campaign by civil society groups and mass media as also the interest displayed by the Apex Court to ensure that the rioters do not go scot-free. Significantly an observation by the judge of the Gujarat High Court dealing with the case has also attracted close attention and won him wide acclaim—he said that religious fanatics organising mass murders of innocent people are comparable to terrorists. This development has reinforced one’s belief in the rule of law with a fresh conviction that the legal process cannot be subverted for all time to come.

On the issue of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots too the situation is taking a new turn. The news that the CBI has given clean chit to two alleged perpetrators of those riots from the side of the politicians—Delhi Congress leaders Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar—incensed Sikhs in the Capital and Punjab beyond measure as they felt they were being deprived of justice even after almost 25 years; this followed on unsavoury, though not wholly inexplicable, incident: the hurling of a shoe by a Sikh correspondent at a press conference addressed by Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram at the Congress headquarters in New Delhi on the steps taken by the UPA Government to tackle terror during its five-year tenure. Massive protests have erupted against this move by the CBI (in its report to the relevant court seized of the matter) that threaten to undermine the Congress’ prospects in the concerned States. The party is now seriously considering withdrawing the two leaders from the Lok Sabha poll in the Capital and replacing them with other candidates. (As we go to press we learn that while the court has deferred its verdict on the two politicians, it has been formally announced by the Congress that they were being withdrawn from the electoral fray.)

Beyond all the election-season trivialities that heighten the banalities of our political class and present a dismal picture of the political landscape in general, these two developments offer not just a silver-lining but also a ray of hope for the future in view of their potentiality to sustain and enrich our secular democracy which has come under siege as the country readies itself for the first round of the 15th Lok Sabha polls.

April 9, S.C.

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