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.
The Hindu, 14 May 2004