It is a funny thing but even as we talk about India being a country of the young and how first-time voters could swing this election, the party campaigns have been dominated by issues that are so old that many of today’s voters were not even born when they were first raised.
Take the two issues that so obsess the BJP. The first is the Congress’s role in the 1984 riots and the controversy over the tickets given to Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler. The second is the current fuss over the withdrawal of the Red Corner notice against Ottavio Quattrocchi, a remnant of the Bofors scandal.
Nobody disputes that both are valid and important issues. But equally, they are also very old issues. The Sikh riots took place in 1984, a quarter century ago. The famous Swedish radio broadcast that blew the whistle on the Bofors kickbacks was in early 1987.
In the years that have followed, many commissions and inquiries have examined the Sikh riots. The Congress even seems to have recovered its standing with the Sikh community, though many Sikhs feel — with justification — that justice has still to be done.
So it is with Bofors. One reason for the Janata Dal’s relatively strong showing in the 1989 elections was because V.P. Singh promised to bring the Bofors money back and to apprehend the guilty within 100 days. That promise was never kept.
In 1996, H.D. Deve Gowda took office and directed the CBI to punish the Bofors culprits. Nothing happened. Then, the BJP had seven years to do something. But the only thing of consequence that was achieved was that poor Arun Jaitley was shifted out of the law ministry for trying to investigate the Hindujas, great pals of that regime.
Now, Bofors is back. And while the Congress and the CBI both have serious questions to answer about their behaviour, there is no denying that there is now a certain sense of confusion and déjà vu. Nine-tenths of voters do not know who Ottavio Quattrocchi is, and the other one-tenth cannot pronounce his name properly.
Nor have other parties come up with much that is current. In UP, the Samajwadi Party is parading Sanjay Dutt who talks about how he was beaten up by the Bombay police in 1993. But 16 years later, the incident itself has been largely forgotten by the electorate.
Lalu Prasad focuses on responsibility for the demolition of the Babri Masjid which took place in 1992. And when the ‘secularists’ want to move their focus to the 21st century, they get stuck at the Gujarat riots, which took place a full seven years ago, in 2002.
The BJP’s one attempt to attack the Manmohan Singh government — most of the time the BJP acts as though it is still opposing Rajiv Gandhi — has been to bring up the Bombay incidents to accuse the government of being soft on terrorism.
But the Congress has responded by going further back in time, to 1999 and by forcing the BJP to defend the Kandahar hostage-prisoner swap. And so, a decade after it happened, Kandahar is also suddenly back on the agenda.
All of this begs the obvious question: is Indian politics so bereft of contemporary issues that our politicians have to keep bringing up the past? Is there nothing in this government’s record that the Opposition can turn into the centre-piece of its campaign?
It is beginning to look that way.
Even when the BJP flirts with youth, it still finds a way of harking back to the past. The slogan at Varun Gandhi’s rallies is that he is Sanjay Gandhi reborn. And Varun himself has said that India would be a better place had Sanjay Gandhi lived.
That quote is a metaphor for this campaign: focused on the past, full of names and references that young people do not recognise, and completely bizarre.
Who, for instance, would have thought that a day would come when a BJP candidate would ask for votes in the name of Sanjay Gandhi?
History repeats itself twice. First, as a stale and boring campaign. And then, as an ideologically-bankrupt farce.