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Goodbye to all that

NDA has lost its momentum even as BJP is tainted by the ghastly sari stampede.
PTI | By Praful Bidwai
UPDATED ON APR 30, 2004 03:55 PM IST

It’s astonishing that there isn’t a huge, generalised, sustained uproar over the killing of 22 women and three children during a Lucknow stampede triggered by the free distribution of saris by the BJP. The episode doubtless marks one of the lowest points in the election campaign. It happened in the heart of the prime minister’s constituency. At its centre was Vajpayee’s long-standing confidante and campaign-manager Lalji Tandon — Lucknow’s equivalent of the PM’s vikas-purush (development-man) appellation.

It’s established (Outlook, May 3, The Indian Express, April 25, etc.) that it was the BJP — not the token frontman Brijendra Murari Yadav — which conceived, planned and executed the sari distribution on Tandon’s birthday. Tandon personally gifted saris to the ‘penniless’ women at whom countless advertisements and posters were targeted, and who were transported to the venue by BJP workers. A complaint warning of this corrupt practice was lodged five days earlier. Posters exhibiting a larger-than-life Tandon and BJP election flags were there for all to see.

So the claim that the BJP had ‘nothing to do’ with the event won’t wash. The denial only compounds the party’s culpability and warrants the stiffest action by the Election Commission — as stringent as the one following the involvement of Yashpal Kapoor, a government employee, in Indira Gandhi’s Rae Bareli campaign, which led to her disqualification from the Lok Sabha, precipitating the Emergency.

Here lies the litmus test for the EC: will it act quickly on evidence available in the public domain, and call a spade a spade? Surely, overt inducement and daylight bribery violate the Representation of the People Act, besides the Model Code. Will the EC follow this logic and countermand the Lucknow election?

These nagging questions cannot be ducked. The EC is one of India’s few credible statutory bodies. It owes it to us to solemnly follow up on the showcause notice to the BJP. It must firmly reject the fashionable middle-class ‘it happens’ argument that ‘all parties indulge in bribery’. They don’t. And they shouldn’t.

Many bureaucrats help parties in elections too. This ‘usual practice’ or ‘it happens’ proposition couldn’t save Kapoor or Indira Gandhi (then flush with ‘garibi hatao’ triumphalism). Kapoor had resigned one day before taking charge of her campaign. The Allahabad High Court held that he hadn’t been formally discharged from his official duties. The election was annulled.

The present corruption case isn’t a technicality. Enticing poor and destitute people with gifts to the point of getting them to kill one another is an extremely grave matter — legally, morally and politically.

This poses a litmus test for the opposition too. Will it condone this ghastly episode? Or will it take it up seriously before the people — by highlighting the quality of the malpractice, the grimness of the 24 deaths, the BJP’s deeply cynical attitude towards the poor and its natural propensity to lie?

The stampede can potentially turn the NDA’s increasingly negative image among the poor into a torrent of opposition votes. Already, there’s palpable resentment among the plebeian strata at the ‘feel good’ and ‘India Shining’ campaigns which chide and taunt them by erasing the larger reality of mass poverty, deprivation, lack of opportunity, explosive disparities and Fourth World-level social indices. An opposition campaign sharply focused on the BJP’s aversion towards and hatred of the poor, and its devious attempt to literally buy their votes could produce dramatic results, especially in the north.

What does the episode say about the NDA’s sole ‘star campaigner’, its trump card, Vajpayee? That he’s so unsure of winning votes that his campaign-managers rely on bribery and beg Ram Jethmalani to withdraw from the contest? Vajpayee has emerged another ordinary, petty, compromised politician — not the tall leader or statesman he’s said to be. Emphasising this could lend a sharp edge to the opposition’s attack.

The latest exit polls greatly reinforce a three-month trend: a big fall from the projected 310-340 seats for the NDA to below the halfway mark, even down to 235, with significant gains for its secular opponents. Evidently, the NDA’s gimmicky campaigns have boomerang-ed. Neither the Vajpayee magic nor ‘micro-management’ genius is working. Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi have had a huge impact. And the BJP’s core-support is crumbling in UP.

The BJP powered itself to prominence and middle-class credibility in the Eighties through its campaign against Muslim ‘appeasement’. It’s now zealously pursuing the same ‘opportunist’ politics with brazenness and vengeance. It has recruited rank opportunists like Arif Mohammed Khan, sponsored ‘Vajpayee Himayat’ yatras, and stooped to wooing Delhi’s Jama Masjid Imam, Ahmed Bukhari. This merely shows its desperation.

The Himayatis are a disaster. Bukhari stands reprimanded by numerous imams. The Muslim masses know the BJP hasn’t changed its spots. Its second line of defence is the familiar Sangh tactic: sow confusion and divide Muslim votes between the SP and the Congress. Even this isn’t working. So, the third line: saris.

The opposition will do itself a disservice if it fights shy of a frontal assault on the BJP’s communalism and its cynical, undemocratic and low-level methods.

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