India is the world’s largest democracy but it seems we’re witnessing one of the least impressive, if not the most uninformed, of political campaigns. We face enormous challenges but they’re not being discussed. The political manifestos have proposed interesting, novel, even radical, ideas but they’ve been ignored. Instead we’ve become obsessed with who’s the strongest — or the weakest — and both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have precious else to say. How very ‘grimm’!
Frankly, I blame both of them. They’re not inexperienced young men who don’t know how to pitch their appeals at a sensible level. They’re past 75 and they have no excuse for trivialising our political debate. Worse, they’ve done it consciously, deliberately and repeatedly.
Let’s pause for a moment and consider what these gentlemen should be talking about instead.
India faces huge challenges — political, economic and of national security. The World Bank has said our growth next year could collapse to 4 per cent. Oxford Economics has put it even lower at 3.4 per cent. How, in these circumstances, can we get back to 9 per cent, leave aside the 10 per cent we yearn for? But on this issue the Prime Minister, though an economist, has nothing to say! Nor does Mr Advani, who wants his job.
Sadly, that is not the only area of deafening silence. The Taliban are just 100 kilometres from Islamabad. They’ve already infiltrated into southern Punjab, including Lahore. The Police Academy strike took place just 10 kilometres from the Indian border. No longer is it far-fetched to speculate that the Taliban could take over Pakistan itself. If that happens they will become our western neighbour, at a shouting distance from Amritsar. But again, Dr Manmohan Singh is silent. So too Mr Advani, though the subject is one he should warm up to.
Yet that’s not all. Even if they are not issues for the hustings, there’s also the challenge of China and the opportunity of Obama. Without doubt, these are ideal subjects for interviews and closed-door speeches. But, again, they’re not being discussed.
According to some analysts, the economic crisis has elevated China to the second most important financial power. The emergence of ‘Chimerica’, as the Washington-Beijing axis has been dubbed, has huge implications for India. It will affect our relationships with the US, Pakistan and, obviously, China. Yet the two men who may have to respond are mum. In fact their lips are sealed.
Equally sizeable and significant is the opportunity — or obstacle — that Obama presents. His Af-Pak strategy could be either. It’s happening at our doorstep and it will critically affect our relationship with Pakistan and, very possibly, the future of Kashmir. But, again, Dr Singh and Mr Advani are behaving as if they are either unaware or unconcerned.
Now come to their manifestos. The BJP’s is by far the more radical, but the Congress’s is by no means uninteresting. The BJP has striking tax proposals and dramatic suggestions for tackling the Naxal threat. The Congress has proposed wide-ranging reservations for minorities and a unique Food Security Act for all. But do the two prime ministerial candidates talk about any of this? It’s almost as if they consider their manifestos irrelevant.
The forgotten truth is that election campaigns are opportunities for politicians to either educate the country or change the way it thinks. Margaret Thatcher in the ’80s, Tony Blair in the ’90’s, and Barack Obama last year, did just that. Could you possibly accuse Manmohan Singh and L. K. Advani of even trying?
I readily accept that the media — TV more than print — bears a share of the blame for this dumbing-down and for the spectacle of trivia we’ve witnessed. We encourage it by what we highlight and cover. But isn’t it also true that the two prime ministerial candidates have set their sights as low as they could? They’re not lifting our horizons, they’re burying our interests and concerns.
Obama won by saying ‘Yes we can’. This election is better described by the phrase ‘we couldn’t care less’.