Anna Hazare claims 99.5% of voters in Rae Bareli have told his survey team they will not re-elect Sonia Gandhi, Congress president, as their MP should she not support the Jan Lokpal Bill. The claim is ridiculous. So why has Hazare made it? Has he concluded, as some others have, that the next election (or set of elections, perhaps) will be monochromatic and driven solely by sentiment for an overweening law that could curb corruption?
In turn, this leads us to another question. Why do people vote the way they do? Is their ballot influenced by one issue or a mix of issues and a reasonable and cold-bloodedly rational prioritisation of concerns by an individual voter?
It's not as if corruption and honesty don't figure in this calculation. When they have found politicians of financial integrity, voters have rewarded them — Nitish Kumar, Narendra Modi and Naveen Patnaik are recent examples. Yet, in each case it wasn't merely personal ethical conduct but the fact that it came with an appealing policy and a governance package that won the mandate.
If Patnaik had not delivered a successful subsidised rice programme in Orissa and built rural roads, people wouldn't have voted for him, never mind his incorruptibility. If Modi hadn't presided over the transformation of Gujarat from a trading to a manufacturing economy, with scorching growth rates, he would not have been re-elected, despite his corruption-free persona.
Is the converse possible? Can voters sometimes overlook corruption because other parameters — patronage, administrative acumen, identity — make a politician attractive despite his or her faults? Much as this may anguish Hazare — and discomfort his thesis of 99.5% support for the Jan Lokpal Bill — it is a hard reality.
Hazare's well-meaning but ultimately fallacious reasoning is not unique to him. LK Advani, too, appears convinced the next general election will be nothing more than a referendum on two or three major national swindles. During his Jan Chetna Yatra, this caused Advani to repeatedly snub BS Yeddyurappa, former Karnataka chief minister and recently arrested on charges of misappropriation.
Advani called the Yeddyurappa episode "embarrassing". There is no doubt the Karnataka politician faces serious charges of administrative distortion and bribery. Even so, Advani's strong words triggered disquiet in the BJP's national leadership and a virtual revolt in its Karnataka unit. Why?
The fact is, despite the mining mafia and the stink of corruption, Yeddyurappa left the BJP stronger in Karnataka than when he took office in 2008. As chief minister, he focused on north and central Karnataka, the BJP's base. He made inroads into Old Mysore, the Vokkaliga heartland where the BJP was usually a poor third. He put together a framework of (sectional) patronage, concentrating on caste groups allied with the BJP and on building a strong rural-agricultural constituency.
If an election were to be held in Karnataka tomorrow, the BJP would certainly want Yeddyurappa on its side. Without him, it would simply not be able to mobilise enough voters — and all of Advani's brave words would come to nothing.
If this is a sobering truth and an indicator of the infuriating complexity of electoral politics, it is not unprecedented. Today, it is easy to posit Nitish Kumar against Lalu Prasad and argue the latter is on the ropes because of perceptions of embezzlement. Voters did not buy into this conclusion overnight. Prasad was first accused of corruption in the fodder scandal in early 1996. He began to be prosecuted and was forced to resign as Bihar chief minister in July 1997. Yet his party — and his wife, who nominally succeeded him as chief minister while he ran the government for her — was in power till 2005.
It took close to a decade for the Lalu magic to wear off, for his voters to aspire to more than what he offered them, for a credible alternative leadership, political platform and social coalition to emerge, for Bihar to decide it was tired of Lalu raj. Minus such a causative context, would people be propelled to vote for a plain anti-corruption slogan?
It's the same elsewhere. Adam Clayton Powell was the ‘Darling of Harlem', representing it in the United States House of Representatives from 1945 to 1968. He was the first African-American from New York to make it to Capitol Hill. In 1966, a House committee indicted him for corruption and embezzlement. When Harlem's voters re-elected him, the US Congress voted to "deny him a seat". He went to the Supreme Court, which said, in 1969, the legislature could not refuse a seat to someone duly elected. The legal court upheld the right of the people's court to do as it deemed fit — even promote the unfit.
These examples may not be palatable to Hazare and his friends. Nevertheless, they do indicate that the true battle against corruption is not going to be fought by enacting that one monster law, attempting to convert that one election into a plebiscite, targeting into submission that one (or more than one) big-name politician. It calls for structural changes — in governance, in discretionary authority, in economic regulation — that prevent corruption. To pretend otherwise is to misread the compulsions of voters at election time.
Ashok Malik is Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.