May issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 20 years ago

Barely a month ago, India seemed wrapped up in friendly stupor, smiling self-absorbedly at a fantastic growth rate (10.4 per cent in the last quarter, said to be even higher than China), a historic cricket series with Pakistan and the best monsoon in years the previous year. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who had sat like a venerable Buddha on the throne of New Delhi across six years and two elections, seemed destined to return. Astrological configurations agreed with more mortal predictions, that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance would sweep the polls. It seemed to be all over, bar another swearing-in ceremony in the name of God.

In retrospect, it’s unclear when the mirror cracked from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, when caste alliances fell into cement in key states like Bihar, when Opposition parties allied themselves against the BJP without much fanfare (in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu). Perhaps the voter, at some point, also got somewhat irritated with the BJP’s protestations of an “India Shining” ad campaign on television and in print — said to have been financed at an estimated cost of 50 crore rupees by the government — especially when he still struggled to get a working hand-pump in his village.

Perhaps those numbing stories of debt-ridden farmer suicides, especially in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, finally got morphed into the computer-savvy image of chief minister Chandrababu Naidu Inc. Perhaps, the nausea peaked when 22 very poor women who had paid a 20-rupee ticket to participate in a rally called in celebration of a friend of the Prime Minister’s in Lucknow — in Vajpayee’s own constituency — died in a stampede and no one was willing to take responsibility for their deaths. The women had been promised “gifts” of 40-rupee saris if they came to the rally. Now their bodies lay around like carcasses, unsung and unmourned. The PM’s longtime friend, Lalji Tandon, in whose honour the birthday rally had been called, waved his many-ringed fingers and pointed out with some gravity, that “accidents” took place all the time all over India. Why should the BJP be singled out, cursed and punished for events beyond its control?

Perhaps, none of the above reasons are behind the current coagulating of the Opposition, that is slowly but surely taking place against the NDA alliance. At the time of writing, after the second phase of polling (the last phase will be on May 10), the coalition seems to be losing its magical touch. According to various exit polls, it seems to be slipping below the 272 halfway mark (in a Lok Sabha which has 545 seats), and could end up with 235-255 seats. For an alliance which won a whopping 291 seats in the 1999 election in the wake of Kargil, that’s already a tremendous loss of face.

Once again, in fact for the 13th time, India’s politicians are discovering that elections are, indeed, a funny thing. (They also understand why many nations, worldwide and not only in the region, prefer controlled democracies.) Just when you could begin boasting about a big heart — attempting peace, for the third time, with Pakistan, underwriting a cricket series with the filmi phrase, `dil jeet ke lao’, etc — it seems as if an impudent electorate is showing you the forefinger. Fully etched in the nail-skin cross-section with a circle of indelible ink, of course.

Clearly, it seems as if the people are no longer grateful even for the acknowledged successes of the Vajpayee-led NDA, but have absorbed them as their God-given right. For example, the great golden quadrilateral highway supposed to connect all four corners of India with roads so smooth they bring to mind the ageless cheeks of Aishwarya Rai. But get off the “quad” at Fatehpur in Uttar Pradesh, one of the most politically aware — but abysmally illiterate — parts of India, and you’ll find dismissive village headmen waving it off as a vision thing in the distance. What happened to the school in the village, they ask. Or the well that was supposed to be built for the Dalits?

The thing about this election is that ‘development’ issues have become so overwhelmingly important that they’re even threatening to swallow divide-and-rule monsters like ‘Hindutva.’ That single word, which forever scalded itself on the consciousness of India in the wake of a cross-country Toyota chariot ride by BJP leader L.K. Advani, seems to have been finally absorbed by all the processes which make up the anarchy of a multi-denominational nation. It was Hindutva which pulled down the Babri Masjid in 1992. It was Hindutva which put a torch to the S-6 carriage full of Hindu volunteers in the Gujarat town of Godhra in February 2002 — leading to the worst pogrom against Muslims in recent memory.

Perhaps the Supreme Court’s refusal to allow the nation to forget Gujarat — and to reprimand the Gujarat High Court at its miscarriage of justice right in the middle of this election campaign — has something to do with it. Perhaps, the courage of some of the victims, including an 18-year-old girl called Zaheera Sheikh, who identified the mob that attacked a bakery in Vadodara, barely a few kilometers away from Irfan Pathan’s house, is adding to the NDA ignominy. ”

Perhaps, the elements of an anti-NDA wave includes a weakness for dynasty. As Rahul Gandhi, son of assassinated prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, came out of the family closet to stand from the pocket borough of Amethi, the sea of faces on television said more than a thousand words. “Na aaj payi, na Vajpayee,” the crush said, “yug-yug ka rishta hai/Rahul Gandhi farishta hai.” As Priyanka, Rahul’s sister, with an amazing likeness to her grandmother Indira Gandhi, campaigned from the top of a four-wheel drive, a roar went through the crowd. Clearly, the power of the Nehru-Gandhi charisma still mesmerised parts of North India.

The sights and sounds of India’s 13th general election have been crashing through the landscape this past month. The irony is, that even as the BJP celebrates its sixth anniversary of the nuclear tests on May 11-13, an event which forever changed the course of history, it may be preparing to alter direction again. With no clear victory forecast for any party in a hung Parliament, an amalgam of former friends and enemies could make up the next Indian potpourri.