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The sixteenth round

  • Published at 07:16 pm March 14th, 2014

There is a growl that can be heard across India. It is a sound somewhere between the plaintive whimper of the poor and the contented purr of the upper class. To a trained ear, it is the stifled remonstrance of a disgruntled middle class, which has seen worse days and was once promised better ones.

That growl could soon turn into a roar, for during the five weeks between April 7 and May 12, class distinctions within India will be levelled into an electoral uniformity as 814.5 million voters queue outside computerised polling booths to select their next set of representatives. The vote of President Pranab Mukherjee will not count for more than that of his least advantaged fellow Bengali.

This 16th general election in India is innovative for many reasons. It will be the first time that the election schedule will be extended over such a long period. Over 28,000 trans-genders have been enfranchised. And the Indian voter has been granted the nihilist’s dream – the power to say “NOTA” (None of the Above).

The first Indian general elections in 1951 followed the Henry Ford principle – the 176 million voters could choose any party so long as it was a Nehru-led Congress. Since then, Indian democracy has matured as newer parties have emerged both at the Centre (BJP, for one) and in the States, until now government in New Delhi is almost inconceivable except as a coalition.

Today, the choices before the Indian electorate are distractingly limitless. For those to whom the suffix Gandhi remains a rudraksha mala, a talisman ensuring success, Mrs Sonia Gandhi and her dimpled son Rahul will remain obvious preferences.  Since leading the party left to her by her in-laws and the heir left in her care by her late husband, Sonia Gandhi has demonstrated with unsuspected dexterity that being a foreign-born Italian is not necessarily a disadvantage within the mafia known as Indian politics.  

No young leader in the 21st century – not Kim Jong-il, not Bashar al-Assad, not Yingluck Shinawatra – has been groomed with such assiduousness as Rahul Gandhi. He inherited his father’s fair looks and his political mantle, but with it a genetic flaw – immature judgment. Within his party, he commands loyalty more than respect. Outside his party, he is seen, despite being “marinated in politics,” as still pink and underdone. 

Opposing him is a phalanx of powerful chief ministers, the most news-worthy of which are the three Graces – Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal, Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh, and Jayalalithaa Jayaram of Tamil Nadu.  Secure in their own states, they are all too aware that while they may not be able to reign in New Delhi, they can like satraps under the Mughals determine who will rule there.

The most prominent chief minister who is being propelled as the alternative to the Gandhis in the forthcoming elections is Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi. He heads a BJP-led National Democratic Alliance which is gaining momentum as polling dates draw near. His hands, once soiled by the blood of Muslims during the riots in 2002, were extended recently to receive a bouquet – the equivalent of an olive branch of absolution - from the US Ambassador to India Ms Nancy Powell (earlier the US consul general in Lahore).

Twenty years separate the politically tested and sagacious Modi from Rahul Gandhi. More than the age difference that disconnects them, they represent opposite facets of India – Rahul, the fourth of a species of westernised secularists, and Modi the first of his, a homegrown outed communalist.

In a culture that sees moral values simplified into Good and Evil (Rama/Ravana, Krishna/Kansa, Chandiki Devi/Mahisha), it would be natural to regard these two protagonists as implacable opponents, ordained to combat until one vanquishes the other. That is not how modern politics work. 

A new force that has merged is the phenomenon known as the Aam Aadmi Party, led by Arvind Kejriwal – a graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur and a former commissioner of income tax. In the Delhi elections in December 2013, he routed the three-time chief minister Sheila Dikshit (a Congress favourite). He stayed chief minister for less than two months, resigning in a fit of calculated petulance, to claim a role for his AAP at the national level.

It would be tempting to compare Kejriwal with our Imran Khan. Both Kejriwal’s AAP and Imran’s TIP share the conviction that they represent a public demand for honest governance, a laudable ambition except that both want to become black-belts without having to undergo a painful apprenticeship.

The stakes in India’s general elections are elephantine in scale. To take just one example, Indian Punjab will contest only 13 out of 543 Lok Sabha seats. Its present debt stands at IRs 100,000 crores. From such mighty oaks will political acorns fall.