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Coming round the mountain

The 2009 election then is trapped tantalisingly, unable to decide whether it is an epitaph or a birth announcement. This has confused everybody, including the participants themselves. Ashok Malik examines...

india Updated: Apr 15, 2009 22:33 IST

India begins voting today in a highly unusual election that is cynically being termed a ‘semi-final’ and being dismissed as an energy-deficient and pointless exercise. There are widespread apprehensions that the verdict of May 16 will be hideously fractured and will inevitably lead to another election in a year or two.

Underlying these fears is recognition that currents and individuals that have guided and shaped Indian politics for two decades — since, roughly, the election of 1989 — are coming to the end of their innings. However, since clean breaks are rarely possible in real life, the contours of what lies ahead are unclear.

The 2009 election then is trapped tantalisingly, unable to decide whether it is an epitaph or a birth announcement. This has confused everybody, including the participants themselves.

Why was the election of 1989 such a landmark? Broadly there were three reasons.

First, it ended the period of Congress majority rule. Second, it empowered, in north India, intermediate castes and inaugurated what was later called Mandalism. ‘OBCisation’ of politics and social engineering became fashionable.

Third, the BJP began its surge. Riding initially on the Ram Janmabhoomi fervour, by the turn of the century it graduated into a party of governance.

In all three cases, the 2009 election marks a closure. The Congress old guard, with memories of single-party dominance, is passing on. Even its most durable member, Pranab Mukherjee, has indicated this is probably his final battle.

The baggage of the 1970s and 1980s has been difficult to discard for the Congress. It has never quite given up on believing that its geographical truncation is only a temporary aberration. This has made it an unrealistic alliance partner.

Take the 2005 Bihar assembly election. Arjun Singh was wheeled in to negotiate seats with Lalu Prasad and actually thought the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) were talking as equals. In 2009, similar delusions have led to the Congress and many of its UPA allies mutually snubbing each other.

The phenomenon of Mandalism — extended by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Mayawati to encompass Dalit empowerment — was more alluring. It ran parallel with the growth of regional parties, as caste and community entities began to flower. Its practitioners used aggressive rhetoric and promoted identity politics for the sake of identity politics.

For a time, this process was persuasive. It caused romantic political theorists to cheer India as a menagerie of segregated caste and identity groups. In this reckoning, India itself was a coalition, a zoo more than a nation. Certain of backyard support, the exponents of ‘empowerment politics’ became reckless. Rather than evolve in government, they promoted unwholesome, opportunistic politics as a norm, seeing honesty and decency as irrelevant to their core voters.

However, this logic too is meeting its nemesis. In Bihar, Lalu Yadav is fighting for survival because he senses his local rival, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, is using responsive governance as a vote catcher.

In Uttar Pradesh, assessments suggest the collusion of the BSP and the Samajwadi Party (SP) with criminal politicians is beginning to cause revulsion. In particular, Mayawati’s recent description of Mukhtar Ansari — her party’s infamous nominee from Varanasi — as ‘Robin Hood’ could severely fracture the broad-based social coalition that brought her to power in the state in 2007.

The so-called ‘Fourth Front’, put together by Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan, is as much an attempt at joint bargaining post-elections as a desperate, final stand. In 20 years, these politicians have just not grown. Yesterday’s radicals are today’s fat cats. But, as the SP’s ‘abolish English, ban computers’ manifesto indicates, the slogans and ideas are still where they were in the late 1980s.

For the BJP, this election is a contradiction. Key functionaries have made strenuous efforts to focus on an economic agenda and on governance issues. However, others have not been cooperative — not the party’s opponents, of course, and not some in the extended family either.

There is a cogent argument for positioning the BJP as the party of national interest, of an open economy and entrepreneurial hope, and of tough action against Islamist terrorism. It is quite another thing to reduce this grand aspiration to gutter-level, self-satisfied abuse of Muslims. The party’s future will be determined not by those who spoke menacingly after Pilibhit, but by those who shook their heads and remained silent.

What does all this indicate? Regional parties will not disappear after 2009. But some of their appeal, in individual states and political territories, may peter out. Along with a generational change in the leadership of both the Congress and the BJP, this could swing the pendulum back towards the national parties. They won’t win majorities but could be in robust control of coalitions.

Whether on internal security or on the economy, the limits of regional parties are gradually becoming apparent. Consider the global economic slowdown. It has sent workers at Gurgaon construction sites home to Bihar; it has hurt business barons in Mumbai; it has shut down a textile exporting township in Tamil Nadu.

These are disparate groups but they are waiting to be welded into an all-India constituency. This is India’s emergent middle class, a much larger demographic than anything the country has seen. In 2009, the idea was too radical for the national parties. In the next two years, the Congress and the BJP must prepare.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based journalist.

malikashok@gmail.com