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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 19, April 25, 2009

Election Titbits, Sad Absence of Ideology

Sunday 26 April 2009, by Shree Shankar Sharan

This must be one of the dullest elections held and the most uncertain in terms of the outcome. People have walked in and walked out of parties. Winnability and notoriety have been equated. Past performance has ceased to matter. Ideology has been thrown out of the window. The dividing line between parties has been changed to the uniting line of ticket-seekers who like an army of mercenaries are willing to cross to any side that accommodates them. Coalition politics has made the walkover easier and more painless, because it has introduced you to more than one party or leadership and given you a ring of familiarity and acceptability as people who have slept in the same bed.

There are no stirring slogans that can bring landslide victory like garibi hatao or a ‘government that works’ or loktantra bachao.The ruling party’s trumpeted achievements of raising the growth rate as high as nine per cent at one time is only being mentioned in muted voices, since the economy is in reverse gear and the growth rate could well decline to seven per cent or less. Employment has begun to slide and despite the much-publicised falling inflation rates, consumer prices have been shooting up and the burden on the consumer mounting. India has been caught up in a severe economic crisis that spans the globe and casts doubt on the model advocated by the ruling party or its predecessor, the Opposition.

Since the BJP has lost two big elections in Delhi and Rajasthan allegedly due to the incumbency factor which did not work in its favour in Delhi, it cannot boast of good governance when in power except when they have been exceptional as is likely to be for the NDA in Bihar with an exceptional Chief Minister in Nitish Kumar. He may not be an angel but his attempts at allround development in Bihar, including law and order, have earned him kudos in the whole country. So did his pathbreaking reservation for women of 50 per cent of panchayat seats. Rahul Gandhi’s attempt to malign him is grossly misinformed, coloured by the reports of his RJD allies. Flood relief in Bihar has been held up not because of Nitish but the Central Government’s cussed refusal or vacillation to release the Rs 14,000 crores that he requires for restoring Kosi‘s infrastructure to make it rehabitable.

No one has raised the issue of corruption which continues to plague the body politic. Even the colossal size of concealed Swiss Bank deposits gets more space in the media than in election polemics except by the Left parties who do not have many listeners. The huge number of crorepatis in the list of candidates or allegations of sale of tickets has given a lot of ammunition to the parties that preach revolution and dismiss democracy as a tool of change. The induction of criminals or the corrupt has been more or less common to all parties, but deserves a strong indictment of the ruling party. Their eradication has been taken off every party’s agenda.This holds good for the entire spectrum from the Congress to the BSP, the BJP hiding their tridents behind saintly robes....

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The biggest election issue for the regional parties is Varun Gandhi or Laloo’s threat to run the road-roller on him or Mayawati clamping the NSA on him, while looking away from the sleeping cells of extremists.The buzzword is development without a mention or debate on its strategy or model. Both the two national parties seem to be unable to see beyond globalisation or foreign investment and the implied trickle-down to the poor. No one has mentioned land reforms—only labour reforms and the right to hire and fire.

There is no agenda to eradicate poverty except through the NREGA which fetches you a measly Rs 100 rupees a day for 100 days. Since it is survival money what was the harm in crediting Rs 500 each month in new accounts to be opened for each member of the BPL, instead of routing it through the corruption ridden block/panchayat machinery with other paraphernalia of launching a new time-consuming NREGA scheme? After all, all employed in developed countries get their unemployment insurance in cash. For women and old people unfit for hard manual work light jobs like spinning and weaving etc. should have been be made part of the NREGA for which a demand has been continuously voiced.

This election has no issues to fight over. They are person-oriented so that there have been personal abuses galore, calling parties budhiyas or gudiyas or weak or cowardly.With a tongue in the cheek which no one believes, the BJP talks of closing the terror camps in Pakistan. Clearly the parties have run out of ideas and justify themselves or question each other in terms of history.

A spirit of accommodation that is the essence of democracy as a social glue can be fractured by excessive vituperation. Democracy in our country has both divided and united people and has co-opted groups that started by a lack of faith in it. It has for the time being silenced the proposal for partyless democracy which exposes the polity to other dangers of a monolithic political culture. But it can survive not by the fiat of the courts of law but by the will of the people. The latter will come forth if every participant is treated with respect and nobody’s credentials like patriotism is doubted.

The Prime Minister, the noted economist that he is, talks of the resilience of the Indian economy because of its regulatory framework rather than the weakness of the Western capitalist economy which has generally abhorred regulation.These regulations are older than him and, if anything, have
been watered down by him. He hardly mentions Jawaharlal’s mixed economy or Indira Gandhi’s nationalised banks as India’s backbone of resilience and refuses to knit the Indian experience into an economic philosophy, rather than regard them as just a variation of the market economy. The cautious monetary or fiscal policy he has followed like every other country is of small value, had the older framework called ‘socialistic pattern’ not been laid.

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Clearly the Indian party system is beginning to show all signs of aging and probably requires new blood and a new leadership. Clearly the old leadership of either party fails to inspire new ideas or new priorities or new styles of functioning, or even new ways of tackling terrorism.

The regional parties have already started to walk in oversized boots.They speak big but soon retract to their small sizes.Three of them started as a Fourth Front but in a more sober moment went back to calling themselves as still in the UPA and vowed loyalty not only to Sonia but also Manmohan Singh.

The wind seems to have gone out of the sail of the regional parties in the cow belt. Take Bihar or UP, for example, where regional parties had struck deep roots.The RJD and SP both rose to power on the plank of anti-Congressism backed by an alliance which included the BJP. It was the second time it happened that the BJP was to them a partner and not a foe. Both parties thrived as spearheads of backward class politics and a protector of minorities. But both have lost their sheen and initial popularity with their poor record of development, their open-door policy to induct criminals or to condone crime to gain political mileage and their treating Muslims as a vote-bank whom they thought they could fool for all times to come. But these parties are social parties and reflect social aspirations and will therefore continue to have their political space. They should consolidate their influence before thinking big.

It is the Congress under Sitaram Kesri, himself a backward class leader from Bihar, who conceptua-lised and actualised the alliance with the RJD, from which it stepped into the UPA. All the constituent leaders were united in condoning political misconduct as long as it kept them in power. An ideological cover for political aberration was given by terming the alliance as that of the secular forces. The NDA was challenged as communal and pariah. But the magic has worn off this old slogan though some have tried to revive it in the Batla House case or the peculiar twist given to the killing of Karkare in the Mumbai terrorist attack.

However, the NDA has made space for itself by good governance in some States and wiser leaders in those States to avoid the divisive and perilous path of Narendra Modi.

Several secular parties have joined the NDA as a continuation of their anti-Congressism and these most prominently include the old socialists who did not have faith in Congress policies or politics. To them, despite occasional discomfort as during the Gujarat riots, staying with the NDA has become an electoral compulsion.

It was the Congress that threw them out of the Congress party on grounds of dual membership since their group called itself the Congress Socialist Party. The group that left included tall men as Jaya Prakash Narayan, Rammanohar Lohia, Narendra Dev, Asok Mehta, Achut Patwardhan, Yusuf Meher-ali etc. They were an inspiration to the youth in the country as demonstrated by the United Front victory against the Congress in several States in 1967 and the Janata Party’s nationally in 1977 following the famous JP movement in Bihar and elsewhere.

Now that the market economy or unbridled capitalism is showing cracks the world over, and the world is groping for a new ideology after the collapse of the Soviet Union, half-way between socialism and the market economy, it is India’s moment to work out a coherent philosophy and offer it to the world. The more equity-minded political parties, worried over their ideological convergence with conservative parties in the West, would be delighted with a new political ideology to emerge out of India, similar to their once famous non-alignment. Could we call it ‘The Middle Way’? n

The author is the Convenor of the Lok Paksh, Patna/Delhi. His e-mail is: shankarsharan77@gmail.com

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