New Amol Palekars

Unassuming leaders are being preferred by voters to those with a high profile. Elections, too, are being seen less as theatre and more about trust. Sagarika Ghose writes.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2012 23:56 IST
Sagarika Ghose,Assembly elections,Akhilesh Yadav

A brave new voice has sounded in the assembly elections of 2012. The voice of the Indian voter that has thundered out from Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur, is a voice both modern and rational and contains pointers for the future.

The most modern aspect of Verdict 2012 is a complete rejection of sectarian agendas. In Punjab, the Akali Dal gave up the Akal Takht agenda and turned to emphasising a composite identity rather than a Sikh or a Punjabi one. The jathedars were marginalised, rhetoric on the 1984 riots and Operation Bluestar reduced and attacks on deras curbed. The Akalis gave as many as 11 tickets to Hindu candidates who all won.

In Goa, it was once again proved that the BJP wins thumping victories only when it rejects hardline Hindutva. In a stunning departure from exclusivist Hindutva politics, the BJP put up seven Catholic candidates, aggressively wooed minorities and as a result even swept Catholic-dominated Salcette. That Manohar Parikkar becomes BJP CM with Catholic support means that not only did the Goan voter want to throw out the Congress, but in the process has not baulked at giving the BJP a chance to prove its pluralist credentials.

In Uttarakhand, notwithstanding his own personal defeat in Kotdwar, the valiant former chief minister BC Khanduri was top of the popularity charts. The CNN-IBN post-poll survey showed that a high 33% in Uttarakhand wanted Khanduri to be the chief minister. And Khanduri is a BJP leader who stands not for extreme Hindutva ideology, but for development and a clean image. In UP, the Congress appeals to Muslim identity backfired badly. Raising the pitch on quotas did not convince an electorate anxious to move beyond old style identity politics.

There was another important feature of Verdict 2012. Massive welfare schemes, packages for weavers, packages for poverty-stricken regions don’t necessarily win elections. If the Congress believes that National Advisory Council-inspired expensive welfarism will automatically reap a rich electoral harvest, then this election needs to force a rethink. Sanctioning a R8,000-crore Bundelkhand package, the R6,000-crore weavers package showed that throwing money at the poor does not always win elections. Of course, it could be argued that even growth did not win in UP this time, as an almost 7% annual rate of growth could not prevent Mayawati’s defeat. Yet, it must be said that in areas where Mayawati’s development work has been most successful, namely in Noida and Gautam Buddh Nagar, the BSP performed impressively. Here voters proved that tangible development work is rewarded.

Verdict 2012 was also a vote against condescension. The elf of self respect is that shy creature who hides away most of the time, far removed from the calculations of pundits and pollsters. But the elf of self respect always appears during elections and insists that politicians uphold the self respect of every voter. Dynasts too now need a thorough makeover: they need to change from born-with-a-silver-spoon to down-to-earth public workers.

Political charisma has undergone a dramatic change. Unassuming low-profile leaders, or the ‘Amol Palekars’ of Indian politics are beloved of the 21st century voter, a voter far too intelligent now to be taken in by elections as theatre.

In the 1970s, Amol Palekar portrayed the quintessential middle-class educated citizen on screen: soft spoken, unassuming, he oozed decency and sincerity. In films like Rajnigandha and Chhoti Si Baat, Palekar was the good man next door, amiable with everyone from the postman to the landlord.

Two highly successful politicians — Nitish Kumar and Akhilesh Yadav — can both be described as the Amol Palekars of Indian politics. They do not have fire and brimstone rhetoric, nor do they stand out in a crowd, nor do they make flamboyant gestures or fiery speeches. Nitish Kumar and Akhilesh Yadav barely raise their voice, you would miss them in a crowd, television cameras do not find them particularly alluring.

Yet it is they who have captured the trust and confidence of the voters in a modernising media-saturated India. The changing nature of political charisma was a defining feature of Bihar in 2010 and has been reiterated in 2012. Australia-educated Akhilesh or IIT Mumbai-educated Manohar Parikkar embody the new middle class: they are educated, professional activists yet the very opposite of flashy. In a media age they use the TV camera well: when the camera’s lens is up close and personal, what is the need to shout? When the zoom captures the innermost expression in the eyes, speeches become almost redundant. The Amol Palekars of politics perform well in extreme close-up.

Another feature of Verdict 2012: the management of elections down to the last mile. Constant politicking, (in the sense of choosing and rejecting candidates), management of rebels, mustering of cadres, hustling voters to the polling booths, elections must now be managed down to the last available voter. The Congress failure to keep rebels in check both in Punjab and Uttarakhand shows a failure of the election management system gone lazy. Verdict 2012 shows that there’s no substitute for relentless 24x7 management of elections.

And the final lesson of 2012 is this: the voter distinguishes sharply between a state and a national election. Congress crashed to fourth place in UP, but 38% in the CNN-IBN post- poll survey still said they saw Rahul Gandhi as a future leader. The voter reserves the right to decide on state and national elections according to a different set of variables.

Thus, a great deal to celebrate in Verdict 2012. It saw the rise of the political centre, the triumph of a modernist urge, an emphasis on rational politics where pluralist accommodating stances were rewarded. Verdict 2012 is the beginning of the politics of intelligent discernment: the voter simply cannot be taken for granted anymore.

Sagarika Ghose is deputy editor, CNN-IBN

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Mar 18, 2012 22:33 IST