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Mainstream, VOL LI No 52, December 14, 2013 | Focus on Challenge of Religious Fanaticism to Democracy in Bangladesh

The Elections and After

Thursday 19 December 2013, by Uttam Sen


Post-election time is open season on losers. That license overtook discourse (on the media) last week with customary intensity. Some within predictably sought to seize the moment. But an optimistic disposition would bring home the leftover plus points. With a little disregard to the rule, putting the finger on the quintessence of the voter’s choice before his or her means of exercising it (elections) would denote a preference for change which perhaps sounds as mundane as the truth. But it could carry telltale logic. In Delhi’s case the immediate spur was the scourge of food inflation. The ordinary person not only feels the pinch financially but psychologically when he finds himself orphaned in the half-way house of a polity caught between the retreating state and the emerging market.

There is no mai-baap to turn to, neither the equipment nor the freedom to take on the odds. The reality comes with a few qualifications, for example, that the Sheila Dikshit Government was not either exceptionally corrupt nor inefficient, that it had delivered reasonably well, the Chief Minister herself for three consecutive terms, that it had made Delhi’s aspect measure up to that of a contemporary modern city, but that it was caught in an economic cycle of inflation and price rise that will arguably abate without busy bodying (though Delhi’ites aver that unstocking hoarders would have helped). Governance, probity etc. are the bottom line. But the felt need was to see people’s representatives proactively identify with their problems.

To the ordinary person insecurity is too experiential, present as much in the mind as the external world, to pass over. The great bounty of the elections was not just that realisation across the political board, which must have existed all along, but the necessity of the political class’ sensitisation to it. The breach conveyed a message that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) read and acted upon, broom in hand. Curiously, it was Rahul Gandhi who found exactly the right answer at the post-election press conference when he said that the ordinary person had to have his space—in government, institutions, political processes and so on, and in so many words that his party would work towards creating it. The point had been taken not just through audition but with the heart. The order was as tall as it was transparent and urgent to the common man because it was spot on.

The moment found the man, as it is said, but in another camp. Bleeding hearts went out to the AAP leader, Arvind Kejriwal, even in his hour of triumph. One does not have to read Gramsci to tell the stumbling blocks of challenging how things stand. Politico-social positioning can give the conventional protagonist the high ground while his adversary is unquestioningly condemned to a lack of credibility. Kejriwal has been persevering for some time from the receiving end, bringing to notice malfeasance and checking over people’s problems with public utilities. He had begun with a movement to help the ordinary person with his income tax while still a Joint Commissioner in the Indian Revenue Service. His later work on the defining Right to Information Act created a sea change in public life. The civil society endeavour to draft anti-corruption legislation through the Jan Lok Pal Bill, with a few rough edges it was said, was almost cheeky in the way it set the cat among the pigeons. His capabilities as an engineer from a top-flight institution were obviously a bonus, unless they were in some unpublicised way the starting point of an idealistic journey. He could well have construed the scientific application of knowledge for practical purposes to be for people at large rather than the exclusivity of industry. The political component as Anna Hazare’s comrade-in-arms, and their equally significant parting of ways, are not under the scanner at the moment, but could show up. He went political by forming his party, but after persistent reproof that he craved for power without responsibility. The untold slurs and slights can be imagined.

Kejriwal has prevailed, being instrumental in reducing the ruling party to third place and running its traditional rival close to a stalemate. Still scarred by the pain and toil of campaign, he had refused to lay claims to future Prime Ministership or even the Delhi Chief Minister’s office, shortly after the declaration of the results, because he represented the ordinary man. (It also presented an opportunity of returning as the largest single party after a brief spell of President’s Rule, unless virtue could be made of necessity to pass the Jan Lok Pal Bill.) Leadership had to be non-hierarchical and grow from the bottom to the top in a democracy. Kejriwal had backers for practising what he preached.

Precept does go a few steps further and envisages, if not rule, guidance by an ethical, enlightened and accomplished vanguard. Even if in his relatively early political days, Kejriwal has provided a taste that will linger. Rule by a few or the rich is not his cup of tea. But collective uplift does create the appropriate, discriminating paradigm, of which he himself is a vivid illustration.

Post-poll analyses that add up are suggesting that the Lok Sabha elections next year will also produce a hung verdict with regional players doing their bit. The two major national parties will be the fulcrums of rival alignments. There could be the comparatively autonomous Third Front. Political uncertainty could assail the portals of the Delhi durbar. But when administration reaches the people, life carries on as usual regardless of political branding, as some of the Assembly winners have proved. Suffice it to say that this reading of the electoral barometer is not foolproof. Candidates who squeak past their rivals in the first-past-the-post system by the narrowest of margins can create an overly flattering, that is, misleading, impression of the victors’ credibility. Acceptance can also be acquired by default, for example, when the adversary grows into a banyan tree stifling life under its shade and dividing what exists.

Kejriwal with his credentials and skills can move the agenda a somewhat greater distance by reducing the cobwebs of antiquated laws and procedures. People of his ilk in addition have the capacity to locally tackle a problem like food inflation by systematic marketing and distribution of produce, and certainly possess the political will to crack down on hoarders. The ruling party Vice-President appeared so sporting and almost prescient because if it takes a latter-day Hercules to clean the Augean stables, why come in the way of someone so ready and willing?

Nonetheless, like the astute Jyoti Basu who had once told an interviewer that he was not a superman to be the Prime Minister, Kejriwal’s responses indicate that he is aware of the enormity of governing a subcontinental entity within concentrations of power by the existing rules, the violation of which is not the answer. Rather than dump the responsibility on prisoners of circumstance who as political alter-natives are sometimes reduced to mirror images of each other, a convincing option must be found, and is probably in the making. Not that change has to be earth-shattering; it has merely to be compatible with the code of conduct that the Raman Singhs and Shivraj Chouhans follow in their pursuit of the common good. They employ extraordinary, if imperceptible, creative power in harnessing their resources to engender a climate of stability and security. In Rajasthan, where the delivery mechanism, particularly of the supposed populist freebies, inexplicably faltered after a promising start, a touch of charisma and feudal reassurance filled the breach for the Opposition. The traditional factor cannot be entirely erased from the electoral equation. The Congress realisation came too late for a revival.

There are other parameters that merit attention like the systemic pros and cons of the state and market that even a seemingly self-assured country like China assessed at its largely monolithic party plenum and put to the test. For all the leadership in the field of ideas, a relative neophyte may be unfamiliar with some critical affairs of state and norms of security. A dialogue must address potentially game changing questions with the occasional compromise and accommodation that brings out the rainbow across the political spectrum, without transgressing them. If the formal apparatus proves inadequate or inconvenient the brainstorming could be conducted extemporaneously between administration, political parties and diverse stakeholders. It is not to be inferred that the subconsciously interactive exercise is not already on across our abundant democratic domain. Budding solutions would represent more hard-headed sequels than blame games which cut both ways. The common man himself has to hedge his bet when he encounters the much-discussed caveat that the AAP and its leader owe much of their salience to the electronic media and hence appear larger than life.

The novelty in the situation is that profes-sionals trained in mechanical maintenance are simultaneously dealing with the governance and rules defining correct human behaviour. The Union Cabinet itself has at least one amazing individual with qualifications similar to the one in the limelight, probably a few more. It is a stupendous task but one that can eventually be met with the faculty and action for new ideas already demonstrated. Information and debate are the known catalysts.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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