Monday, April 06, 2009

India: Up, Close & Personal - Waiting for the Elections

Finally, I am back in London, but with India all over me. I have not lived in India for a long time, but have spent a lot of time, over 100 days, in India, in the last six months. This was an unusually close engagement after a long time. I am unlikely to continue such intense travelling in the coming months, and will see much less of India now. But, this experience left a mark - seeing India so closely and so much, and with such a perspective, was something unique and never repeatable.

As I come back, India is preparing for its elections. This starts in ten days, and will be conducted in five phases, extending upto middle of May, and results will be out by the end of May. I am very keen on voting myself and will try to coincide a quick visit to Kolkata around the time. However, this is indeed the first time I don't know what to do with it.


This is one of the most crucial elections in India's history, when everything is up in the air. The political formations are all open now, with friendly fights and opportunistic unions abound. There are politicians who have been advised by astrologers that they can be Prime Ministers and they have made their political decisions solely based on such predictions. There are ministers in the ruling coalition which are fighting against the governing party. There are leftists aligned with the extreme rightists, moderates with extremists, and bitter enemies are suddenly bound together in the union. There is an overwhelming feeling that pre-poll alliances are not important, and there can be a complete realignment post the election. So, this is an election where the politicians finally decided to steal the mandate from the people.

In lot of ways, it feels like the mid-90s. A tired Congress government has just run the country for five years. They have nothing new to offer, and more importantly, no clear leadership. The main opposition is right wing BJP, which is torn between its back-to-roots extreme Hinduvta and moderate centre-right politicos. In the middle, there are a clutch of political parties, with a prominent place for left-of-the-centre Communist Party of India (Marxist) which is ambivalent about its role in governance. This allowed a field day for astrologers and offer-nothing candidates, who were mere passengers in the Prime Ministerial seats. They allowed the country drift, as they were destined to do.

We have a very similar situation today, but with a lot more at stake. This is a difficult time for the economy and inspired leadership is needed more than ever. India is at a crucial T-junction, when we can either lose our way or find our place in the world. The situation resembles far more late-70s China than anything else, and it does seem that, finally, our politicos have given up that iota of political pretension that they maintained and getting ready for one last run for the chair.

I also felt that Congress is priming itself up for a loss. It has almost given up. It is setting itself up for some impossible fights in the Northern India. It is set to lose Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharastra. The only states where they are set to make some gains are West Bengal [where people are finally tired of the CPIM] and Rajasthan, but these will hardly be enough to offset the losses they make elsewhere. I almost have a niggling suspicion if they intend to lose the election, and let India be led by another party in the middle of an economic crisis, only to lead victorious in a subsequent election with a new, young leader. Everyone seems to know who that leader will be. I am sure I am wrong and this is all too cynical, but the suicidal stances of Congress Coalition managers seemed to give that message anyway.

I also think BJP has given up the hope of winning the election. In the first place, they don't know what they stand for. They seem to be performing one big Yatra, where L K Advani is trying to flex his imaginary toughness. I wonder whether BJP really believes that they can win this election. Mr Advani is a tainted man, both because he was the poster boy of Hinduvta with his Rath and his blatant participation in the Babri Masjid demolition, and also as the opportunist who praised Jinnah in Pakistan for a few political brownie points. I am sure someone has a great sense of humour portraying him as a strong man, at the same time claiming that he was powerless to stop the mob from tearing down Babri Masjid. It takes a leap of imagination to see him as a decisive Prime Minister able to protect the country from terror attacks, when terrorists reached as far as the outer perimeter of the parliament under his watch as Home Minister. And, as far as all other issues of governance as concerned - like economy or climate - he is as clueless as anyone; it will possibly take a significant research project to figure out if he has ever made his position clear on the subjects over last few decades in the parliament.

This leaves out the Third Front. It is an interesting amalgam of parties, indeed. It has almost two dozen parties and at least six to eight prime ministerial candidates. It has a sweeping agenda - including nationalizing US consulates and privatizing Taj Mahal - and a suitably chaotic answer for every question of import. This is really the front of truth - who are clearly saying that it is not important what happens before the polls; it is important what happens after it. This is where the alienation of politics and people are complete; not surprisingly, as the communist theoreticians have dreamt this up in the first place. This is the only front which believes that they can win, and each constituent has come to this front with a deep faith in their Prime Ministerial potential. The only problem is that they are likely to get a thumbs down at their home patches - in West Bengal, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh at the least - and after that, they may become even more chaotic than they are today. That, surely, is a frightening prospect.

So, in summary, this is an election no one seems to want to win. It seems that every one wants to be fighting for the next election - Congress wants to sacrifice the decent but docile Manmohan Singh and move on to the next-gen soon; BJP wants to move from ambivalent Advani to mince-no-words Modi; and the CPIM and its various Third Front colleagues are out for one last hurrah. It sure seems India is set to lose.

This is the first time I don't know what to do with my vote.

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