Covering the election campaign in 2004, your humble columnist had spotted a funny little creature, and had written about it too. Who is this creature who even in 2009 skips and hides in riverbeds and slums? This little creature is an elf. And his (or her) name is the elf of Self Respect. “The soul of a nation long suppressed finds utterance,” roared Jawaharlal Nehru when freedom dawned in 1947. But freedom remained a flickering oil lamp for millions who struggled under a brutally elitist society where industry, education and government remained the monopoly of the few. The elf had nothing except the one instrument handed to him by the great dreamers of 1947. He had the vote. And he voted, voted repeatedly, sometimes wrongly, sometimes rightly, always with one secret aim: give me my self-respect. Mandates will always be fractured until every politician listens to the elf of Self Respect.
In the 1980s, the Congress commanded near total loyalty. It had its mammoth organisation, its busybody managers, its royal family and its supreme leader. But in Indira Gandhi’s time, as autocratic rule began, as the party retreated into drawing rooms, as leaders began to speak a language that was condescending and disrespectful, the elf began to slowly withdraw his support. When Rajiv Gandhi, then an MP, reportedly insulted Andhra Chief Minister T. Anjaiah who had been waiting for him at the airport, this insult became an opportunity for one of the greatest self-respect movements ever. N.T. Rama Rao seized the moment to launch his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) on the basis of Andhra pride and forever destroyed the monopoly that the Congress had in the state.
The elf of Self Respect is a quirky creature. However much he may want to love the royal family of the Congress, today he is far too hypersensitive about his own self-respect to give them his vote when he feels they don’t deserve it. The Congress has sadly failed to democratise its leadership, failed to answer backward caste aspirations and failed to become a genuine path of upward mobility for millions whose ancestors were domestic servants of the sahibs and the brown sahibs. It was this failure that led to the rise of the backward caste parties of Lalu Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and even Mayawati.
It’s the Congress’s failure to address regional aspirations that has thrown up regional parties, be it the TDP, the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa or the AGP in Assam, or even the NCP, a party which may have been initially started over Sonia Gandhi’s ‘foreign origins’, but today is essentially an outlet for those in Maharashtra who feel oppressed by the Congress ‘high command’ culture. Why should anyone in 21st century India fetch and carry for a ubiquitous high command when they could carve out their own niche? It’s this desire to create individual space in a vast country that is at the heart of the potentially fragmented verdict of 2009. When self-respect is raging through the land, there can be no monopolies in politics anymore, just as there none in business.
Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav certainly do not play by the Queensberry rules. They have crawled up the slippery slope of mass politics by sheer grit, ruthlessness and enormous public appeal. To underestimate these leaders in this election was a cardinal mistake of the Grand Old Party. Today, the Congress would have been comfortably placed to win this election had it stuck with its alliances with Mulayam and Lalu. Instead, by bitterly fighting the RJD and SP in Bihar and UP, respectively, the Congress has weakened the very allies who could have given it a rich harvest of votes.
The Congress’ betrayal of Lalu stemmed from an imperious wish to ‘rebuild’ the Congress just a month before elections. But the elf of Self Respect does not respond to short cuts. He judges slowly and he judges over time. To assume that he will be swayed by token gestures like a few nights spent in a Dalit home is to disrespect his intelligence. Equally disrespectful, in another context, is to assume that voters will be galvanised to vote simply because film stars tell them to.
Yet why is it that the messiahs of self respect, Lalu, Mulayam and Mayawati are themselves all predicted to face a tough fight at the elections this time? Because the elf is no fool. He can see when self-respect movements become hostage to a family or to corporate interests like Mulayam or when Lalu makes a caricature of the poor or when Mayawati’s empowerment simply remains restricted to building monuments and statues. He knows that when that happens it is time to stop believing in them. Why is it also that the aggressive Hindutva earlier practised by the BJP is not seen to be a supplier of votes anymore? Because to assume that the voter is an unthinking individual, unaware of his rights, liable to be swayed by nothing but hysteria is the greatest condescension.
One man is slated for a big victory this time. A Chief Minister who makes no flamboyant gestures but who has listened carefully to the quiet voice outside his chief ministerial window: give my children their self-respect. For the last three years, Nitish Kumar, cm of Bihar has clocked an 18-hour working day to bring as many facilities as he can. The elderly lady with the untidy hair who walks in the galis and mohallas of Delhi, the bespectacled quiet listener who is bringing water and electricity to Madhya Pradesh, the former Manhattan party animal who has not stepped out of Orissa for the past ten years, namely Sheila Dikshit, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Naveen Patnaik — these are the politicians who have heard the voice of the elf of Self Respect. No wonder, election after election, they have won his vote.
So, if on May 16, a splintered verdict makes you worried about the mess that is Indian democracy, think about the elf of Self Respect. He’s been waiting for centuries to get his dignity. He’s willing to wait even longer. If politicians want to break out of the trap of fractured mandates, they must hear his faint whisper: recognise my self-respect. If not, face the consequences.
Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN