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Byline by M.J.Akbar : Victimorious
The Indian voter has a simple formula for Indian democracy: he votes for himself. This may seem an obvious reality, but there are nuances.
I do not mean that he votes for a party that claims it will serve his interests, for the simple reason that everyone claims the same thing. Every party promises to eliminate poverty, end corruption, provide water and ensure law and order. No party’s manifesto declares that it will pollute the environment, take bribes in defence deals, institutionalise nepotism, incite violence between people for votes and leave you angry, frustrated and miserable after five years.
Since there is not much to choose from in manifestos, the voter needs a different measure to define the difference. It is pertinent to enter a caveat: we are talking about most voters, not every voter. However, since the majority trends determine the result, the qualification is probably irrelevant.
When I said that the voter votes for himself, I meant that he votes for the party or leader that comes closest to his image of himself. The Indian voter used to see himself as poor. As long as this was the case, the sway of the Congress was unassailable, culminating in the massive victory of 1971. By the 1977 election the self-image had switched. The voter now saw himself as a victim. The Emergency of course was a significant reason for the switch, but it was also a sign of greater democratic assertion, and stress on the rights of an individual rather than the largesse of the government. The stability of British rule depended on the concept of the government as mai-baap, both the mother who nourishes and the father who protects. The Congress, as the successor government, inherited that legacy, bolstered additionally by the fact that Mahatma Gandhi was the granddaddy of the national movement. But after 1977, the voter refused to be patronised by the government, or indeed by mere slogans. Instead of the voter being a child of the government, the government, very properly, became the creature of the voter. Good governance, a growing economy, law and order were no longer valued as "gifts" from the sarkar, but as the due right of a voter who had done the politicians a favour by putting them in office.
The Emergency crystallised the shift in self-perception, and because the Emergency was harsher in the North, the shift was more acute in the North. The South however soon caught up, provoked by incidents such as the one in which Andhra Pradesh chief minister T. Anjaiah was seemingly humiliated (I say seemingly, because Congress chief ministers were so obsequious that it was difficult to humiliate them). However, it was when the southern voter also became demanding that N.T. Rama Rao and Rama Krishna Hegde swept the Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
There is no formula that can apply to every state in a nation as complex as India, but this is a broad rule of a broad thumb if not an absolute dictum. One exception comes to mind easily. In Bengal the Congress looks like a victim, talks like a victim and is a victim, but the Left always wins. The reason is that while you are permitted to be a victim, you are not permitted to be a pathetic victim. The victim must possess the self-respect to assert himself and not sink into shallow depths of self-pity.
Mrs Indira Gandhi lost the elections in 1977 because the Janata Party (conceived in jail, and produced, with much labour, outside) was the ultimate victim. Mrs Gandhi won in the winter of 1980 because in just three years of hunt and misfire, the Janata turned her into a victim. In the next elections, Mrs Gandhi’s assassination was something that the voter easily and powerfully identified with: who could be a greater victim than a martyr for Indian nationalism? In 1989, V.P. Singh donned the mask of a victim. It was a mask, but it worked. In 1991 the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi midway through the elections shifted the balance of seats in favour of the Congress in the South, giving the party just enough ballast to form a minority government. Atal Behari Vajpayee won in 1999 because the one-vote defeat in the Lok Sabha turned him into a "bechara" and he soon added flow of Kargil to his political persona. The BJP lost in 2004 because its spokespersons on television and its interlocutors were too well-fed and spoke in the orotund tones of a success they took for granted. The voter punished smugness by turning towards Mrs Sonia Gandhi, who represented the victim.
This is the difference between the Jayalalithaa of 2004 and the Jayalalithaa of 2005 in Tamil Nadu. Last year she was seen as the woman who had thrown the elderly Karunanidhi into jail, tried to impose her will on the free media, snubbed the bureaucracy and sniffed at a democratic culture. This year — thanks both to the fact that the alliance of her foes is in power in Delhi and is complacently waiting to come to power in Chennai — she is the victim. This transformation was not easy. Ms Jayalalithaa worked hard to refashion her image after her sweeping defeat in 2004. In order to change you first have to have the humility to recognise what is wrong, and then the perspicacity to realise what is right. The second is more difficult than the first. The electorate tells you in detail about the first; the second you have to figure out yourself. In a carefully thought-through process Ms Jayalalithaa re-positioned herself both politically and administratively. She struck at the DMK’s Dravida plank by taking on a symbol of Brahmins. And the competence and concern with which she handled the relief work following the tsunami, re-established her image among the victims of that tragedy (the resonance and connection reappear). The swing that she achieved in two constituencies that she had lost last year is phenomenal. Moreover, she did it alone. She has distanced herself from the BJP in the last year. Her foes, on the other hand, stuck to their alliance. As she put it, she had the coalition of the people behind in the battle against the coalition of the parties. And she did it while remaining in power. In Opposition you have to do nothing to look like a victim.
How many apple carts, and whose, did Ms Jayalalithaa upset? The fruit on the DMK’s cart certainly has a scattered feel to it now. Coalition politics is an ever-changing game of multiple options. Will Mr Karunanidhi be tempted by the apples of Delhi if he begins to believe that he might not become chief minister of Tamil Nadu? Incidentally, reports that he is unwell are exaggerations, or wishful thinking: he is fit enough for a spell in office.
It is curious, but entirely understandable, that no one looks like a victim in the Delhi scenario. The Congress is flexing muscle that it does not possess, as the Bihar elections proved; and stretching its power lines beyond their tensile strength, as Jharkhand and Goa proved. The BJP is amazingly depressed by its defeat, a curious state for a party that never expected to be in power. It has not got its act together, or even selected the scenes that will make up the act.
Dr Manmohan Singh’s government has found its feet, but not discovered a route map or a destination. It is there because it is there. A little more of this and it might get frozen in political cement. The Prime Minister is an honest man. He commemorated the first anniversary of his government by giving himself six out of ten. It might have been seven were it not for the fact that the one area in which his personal expertise is unquestioned, the performance of the government is being questioned.
The growth rate of the GDP has already been formally lowered to 7.5% and could slip below that. The victim-voter is not going to be terribly enthused since employment cannot be reduced unless growth rate is over 8%, and with half of that growth coming from industrial production (the projected share of the service sector in the growth rate is 65%). Industrial production is in fact sinking, and this year’s Budget offers no reason for hope that the curve will change direction.
Curiously, Dr Singh’s one chance of dramatic success, and perhaps the rescue of his government, lies in an area where he has no expertise: Pakistan policy. But to move forward on that dramatic front (the fortunes of peace with Pakistan incidentally are more dramatic than the fortunes of war) needs a Prime Minister who will rise above himself, and carry both his government and his nation towards a historic moment. Will that happen? That is a question that only Dr Singh can answer.
For the moment, the only victim in Indian politics is the voter. He is still awarding grace marks all around, but the day the victim feels that he is being deliberately victimised the silence on the streets will become a murmur, and the murmur will turn into a roar.