Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Watershed Moment

India's electorate continues to spring surprises. A largely illiterate, prejudiced electorate - what do they know of governance and democracy one would think - defies the political pundits and vote maturely and with great judgement. I am so delighted to be proved wrong regarding my fear that this election will have disastrous consequences and I hope my delight will be shared by many across the country. We did think that the terrorists attacks on Mumbai and Varun Gandhi's antics will create an wave of hatred in India towards minority communities and carry the election. We thought Prakash Karat's private revenge will play spoilsport. We also thought that the royalists in Congress will jump in with Rahul Gandhi's candidature and undermine the strong record of competence of Manmohan Singh. Everyone predicted that this will be a fractured mandate and the real game will be played after the election, and various end-of-shelf-life politicians propositioned and postured to emerge as compromise candidates for the top job hoping that the election will be inconclusive. In summary, there were many who wanted to steal this election, with false promises, invoking false fears and for a false future.

The wonderful thing about democracy is that people prove that they are smarter than one would usually think. No point talking about illiteracy: even if one can not read, one knows what's good for her. No point trying to sway people by fear - the private moment inside the polling booth is wonderfully liberating and brings the best judgement out of all of us. We have seen this in Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere - while the elite may rationalize whether a largely illiterate electorate know anything about democracy, when people vote, they display tremendous wisdom and maturity.

Don't get me wrong. I am not celebrating for the Congress/ UPA win. But, yes, I fell in love with the idea of India yet again. Someone told me that thinking about India sitting in London is like thinking about North Sea, but I know that we, all of us who stay in a different country, carry a little India around us all the time, in our heart, in our households and in our thoughts. I am celebrating that wonderfully liberating idea of Modern India, a vast chaotic mass of people who just displayed great decency, maturity and judgement when we left it on them.

I did not sleep much last night and turned into NDTV early in the morning. Wanted to see whether we actually descended into chaos as everyone predicted. By the afternoon, I know we have not. Our union is intact and our resilience as a democracy is in full display again.

We are in the middle of final results now and the analysts are busy. But, here are some initial thoughts on what we see coming out:

First, the BJP - lost their way, yet again. I do think they have never understood the multicultural nature of India. They are in an elitist quicksand, and display strategic misjudgement all the time. I don't think anyone in India outside BJP party offices thought of L K Advani as a strong leader. Was he strong when we watched over the demolition of Babri Masjid? Was he strong when he was the Home Minister and a hijacked plane landed in Amritsar? Was he strong when terrorists reached the outer circle of Parliament under his watch? It was a strange effort to sell a fiction to the electorate, but they found very few buyers. I am sure even the effort of projecting Dr. Manmohan Singh as weak has backfired on them. This is the Prime Minister who staked his seat to stand for something, the US deal here but then who stands for anything in politics, and risked his government. I can see that Congress and its allies have won almost all the major metropolitan seats in India, including Mumbai. I am sure BJP failed to capture the imagination and appeared clueless for the most part.

Second, the Indian electorate is aspirational today, not fearful. Regardless of the global recession, Indians believe in India and now looking out to the future. BJP tried to sell fear and the left, hopelessness. On the other hand, Congress, mostly because it is the incumbent government, spoke of hope and progress. This must have stuck a chord in the largely young, largely aspirational electorate. Again, a trend not unlike the one we saw in Bangladesh, another country with a large number of young voters, this vote is a mandate to move forward.

Third, it is interesting to watch the results from some of the sitting state governments. The hope and progress is more pronounced in the agenda than ever. Apart from Andhra Pradesh, where a largely corrupt incumbent government has been saved by the lack of leadership in the opposition and a division of voters by star factor, everywhere else, it worked out as a mandate on state governments. But, while incumbency factor is usually treated as a baggage, not so in a young, hopeful country like India. Bihar, where Nitish Kumar wins a resounding victory; Orissa, where Navin Pattanaik went out of BJP fold and came back with an impressive victory; Delhi where Sheila Dixit continues to stun people; Gujrat where Narendra Modi won hands down on the development agenda; Madhya Pradesh, where Shivraj Singh Chauhan maintains his leadership and Jharkhand, where the BJP government comes back with a strong result, are witnesses to this march of hope. And, on the same vein, the electorate has punished hopelessness, in West Bengal and Kerala, and in Uttar Pradesh, where the search for new ideas have gotten desperate.

In the end, we can now look forward to five years of stability, and not be blackmailed by political operators who would run an agency for the Chinese or try to sell Taj Mahal. The incoming government has its own problems to solve. Corruption and cronyism are endemic in Congress and the new mandate should embolden people like Dr Manmohan Singh, the only Prime Minister to be elected back after a full five year term in office, and the people like Rahul Gandhi, whose earnestness is believable, to push for a reform inside the party. But, then, the people of India deserves it, and now that it is clear that the people are actually cleverer than their politicians, all parties are advised to become more sensible.

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