A vote of change

  • Barkha Dutt
  • |
  • Updated: Apr 25, 2009 00:30 IST

Aren’t you a little tired with everyone going on and on about how this is an election without any compelling issues or moments? Do you notice how so much time and space has been devoted to the debate about the debate — whether Manmohan Singh and L.K. Advani should slug it out on national TV — that many of the compelling arguments that have defined the political discourse aren’t being noticed enough.

First, no matter what the politically correct pundits may say about how this is a Westminster model and not the White House — I personally find the face-off between the two declared prime ministerial candidates both relevant and riveting. Sure, the new government may well belong neither to the BJP nor to the Congress. But the fact is that these are the only two parties that have declared who their man for the top job is. And as a voter, I think, I have the right to know both more intimately than I do. The clash of the titans has made this election more a matter of psychological warfare than most previous ones — making it that much more interesting to observe.

More than ever before — it is in this election that we have asked ourselves that one question so fundamental to all democracies — what do we really look for in our leaders? Advani started it by raising some interesting questions about whether Manmohan Singh had any real authority. Could we — the BJP wanted us to ask ourselves — respect a PM whom they claimed was ‘weak?’ The Congress — more specifically Priyanka Gandhi — then elevated the debate to a more sophisticated level by demanding to know what the definitions of weak and strong were. Was it about manner and style? Was it about being soft-spoken and self-effacing? What about Mahatma Gandhi then, she demanded to know.

The BJP hit back by saying it was not the style, but the substance of the power-sharing arrangement they had a problem with. Dual power centres, they argued, undermined the PM’s post. But then two things happened. One, the Gandhi family launched almost co-coordinated counter-attacks on Advani. And two, the PM himself started opening up and hitting back punch for punch. In the last couple of weeks, we have seen an unprecedented campaign of support by the Congress for Manmohan Singh. And we have seen a PM who seems to have acquired an entirely new aggression ever since his party officially declared him to be their choice for 2009. Now, the BJP says the Congress has personalised the debate and reduced it to personal mudslinging. Advani says he is hurt by the PM questioning his contribution to public life. So, now it’s for you and me to decide which man has shown qualities of leadership that we can admire. It’s a pretty complex question and one raised for the first time in this election.

At the heart of the Congress counter-propaganda is another sophisticated debate about whether any government can afford to declare that it would never negotiate with terrorists, no matter what the situation. The Congress has brought back the ghost of Kandahar to haunt the BJP with. In an election that is taking place in the backdrop of 26/11, it’s a worthwhile weapon. It makes for a compelling example, every time the BJP accuses the UPA of being soft on terror. The BJP says today that the decision to release three terrorists in exchange for the freedom of the passengers on board IC-814 had the endorsement of an all-party meeting. But privately, it admits that the party has always spoken in multiple voices on who knew what at that time.

The cloak of secrecy that shrouds the truth of those events is something the party could find tough to shake off. Equally, the Congress may argue today that it would never have agreed to the barter. But privately, many Congressmen concede that such conclusions are impossible unless tested by actuality. The Home Minister today says he would never have done what the NDA did. But he has also indicated that there are no simple answers when asked if a no-negotiation policy were truly possible, when it came to tackling terrorists.

These are all terribly complicated issues with no easy answers, and I think, this election has explored the ambivalence and the grey areas that surround them. Surely, that counts as an example of the maturing of political debate?

This is also an election where multiple local issues will influence choices in different states. If you listen closely to the state campaigns, you will be struck by how much of the rhetoric is around governance and development, no matter which the party. If earlier, competitive casteism or communalism marked the stakes in election time, this time it is competitive performance indices. And that too is a welcome break from the past.

Yes, we may be headed towards a hung verdict. And yes, we may all be worried about the absence of stability that will come with another khichdi sarkar. Nobody wants a government that collapses in a few months, throwing up yet another election. But the good news is that India’s democracy is evolving. We are getting more argumentative, more demanding and less emotional in our political choices. The absence of a ‘wave’ may make for dullish media coverage. But it also makes for more interesting politics. And it may take the upheaval in  this period of transition to make way for a more mature democracy.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV.


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