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Merit alone is not enough

india Updated: May 28, 2010 20:05 IST
Sujata Anandan

Former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s English was rather heavy and old-fashioned. But there is nothing funnier than a Rajya Sabha election he described evocatively — and with all the elements of slapstick — in his book The Insider, released in the 1990s.

He wrote about one particular fractious election in Andhra Pradesh, where a freedom fighter was pitted against a business baron — and the former was set to lose. The businessman had the resources to wine and dine the MLAs voting at the election while the freedom fighter had nothing but his party high command’s support to fall back on.

On election day, when the returning officer announced the results of the first round, the freedom fighter fainted. Not because he had lost the polls but because he had polled more than the minimum number of votes needed to win, which were considerably more than that secured by any of his rivals in the fray. The election process was stopped and the freedom fighter was rushed to hospital. The poll process resumed only after he recovered and returned to the election centre.

As Rao told it, MLAs had voted for the freedom fighter because they thought that if the business baron made it to the Rajya Sabha, he would use his money power to run them out of, well, their own business of politics. By contrast, the freedom fighter was harmless and a safe bet. In Rao’s story, the business baron lost every round and could not understand why his money had failed to buy the votes.

Rao had fictionalised the facts — I am told an incident like this indeed happened in Andhra Pradesh in the 1970s. But in my time I am yet to come across anything like a conscience vote, even if it is guided by self-interest. I have only seen money and muscle power winning polls each and every time.

Around the time I was reading Rao’s book, a dozen years ago, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance was in power and 45 Congress rebels held the key to the RS elections that season. They were all amply wined and dined. The then Election Commissioner, T.N. Seshan, got wind of it and he deputed revenue officials as election observers to see if — and how much — money was changing hands. But they just could not figure it out.

However, this was a different era from that of Rao’s romantic and idealistic times, so the well-heeled won all the rounds. Those without money and with only the party high command’s support (Sonia Gandhi’s then political secretary R.K. Pradhan, in particular) lost. And not even Gandhi could do a thing about it.

Times have changed again from those venal days but loyal party workers still do not have anything except their credentials to make it to the Rajya Sabha. So far as the Congress goes, I sympathise utterly with the cases of two of this year’s aspirants: Anant Gadgil and Avinash Pande. Both are dedicated party workers but have been ignored election after election by their party elders.

I felt immensely sorry that Gadgil should have to write an impassioned plea to his party leaders reminding them of his
credentials. He is the grandson of a freedom fighter and the son of one of what they call the ‘1978 loyalists’ — those who stood by Indira Gandhi, post-Emergency. Pande, though, has only his own two feet to stand on — he’s the chief mover of
Rahul Gandhi’s current yatras in Uttar Pradesh and has played a key role in helping Rahul revive the party in that state.

With Union Commerce Minister Anand Sharma eyeing a seat from Maharashtra, they have more competition than just from business barons. I am told that senior state leaders have advised the party high command against adding any grist to Raj Thackeray’s mill by fielding a north Indian from the state. They have used a Marathi idiom to argue their case: maakada cha haataat kolit (it would be like placing a live torch in the hands of a monkey).

But this is the Congress. So who that monkey might be is quite another argument.