Now that the festive haze has cleared, it is plain that 2008 will keep lashing a long tail well into 2009. India has started fighting off the recession but there’s a long way to go yet. Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to treat the South Asian terror crisis as an international kabaddi fixture.
So terror will remain a core issue in the general election, which promises to be the most boring poll ever because we will have to choose between almost exact identities. After the UPA government’s anti-terror moves, possibly the last major policy difference between the leading national parties, the BJP and the Congress, has vanished. There’s always Hindutva, you say? But do remember naya Promise, which gained a following by advertising the fact that it contained clove oil. Which, of course, was an ingredient in almost all toothpastes. Well, Hindutva is the clove oil of the electoral marketplace. The BJP originally advertised it to mark itself apart from its cousin, the Congress, which also has a communal history. The latter built Muslim vote banks decades before the right realised that Hindus overwhelmingly outnumber Muslims and make better pickings. And both parties have used religious violence for political gain.
Now, Hindutva seems to be the election bunting to be hung out in the season and packed away as soon as the BJP is in office. The BJP stresses Hindutva in election mode but in governance mode, it is like the Congress on steroids.
In policy-making, the space between the two parties has diminished so much that they can claim credit for each other’s initiatives. The Manmohan Singh government has taken credit for giant strides in telecom, infrastructure and the space programme which owe to the Vajpayee government’s policies. The 123 agreement, which the Congress counts as a coup — and which the BJP denounced, ironically — is the outcome of Vajpayee’s rapprochement with the Bush administration.
On the other hand the Pokhran II nuclear test, which the BJP made much of, owed to the long commitment of the Congress to the nuclear programme and its refusal to accept a test ban. And while everyone agrees that the BJP is just great for business, its economic policies merely carry forward the liberalisation agenda initiated by the Narasimha Rao government.
While it’s refreshing to see such community of purpose in an eternally fractious polity, it also robs the voter of choice. When both major parties are agreed on a national agenda determined by urban middle class interests, the boondocks are bound to get heartburn. So after a boring non-election, look out for unwelcome excitement. Maybe even new flavours of terror to bolster the Maoist menace.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine.