Sunday, October 30, 2005

Who's Lost It?

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Who's Lost It?

Rule No. 1 to Rule No. 10 of a democracy: No one really wins an election, but someone loses it. There are of course exceptions, but the principle is sound. Did Tony Blair win the last British elections? Not if you see the percentages that voted for him. Did the Tories lose those elections? Certainly. A better candidate than John Kerry, who did not know his swift boat from his desert patrol, would have saved George Bush the humiliation of a second term.

As it was the first assessments on polling day in the United States last November predicted a Kerry victory. And then of course we have our own BJP, who compounded the mood-swing against the party after the Gujarat riots with persistent and even obstinate miscalculations.

One characteristic of Indian political parties, particularly when they are in power, makes them a unique phenomenon. They put their best foot forward, and then shoot themselves in that foot. Curiously they think they are still sprinting towards the finish line when it is apparent that they have begun to hobble. That describes the BJP last year. Is it an accurate description of Lalu Yadav in Bihar this year?

With polling over in more than half of Bihar, eyes are beginning to open and views expressed. The polls have made their point. They used to make a much bigger point, but after their disastrous distance from reality in the last Lok Sabha polls their impact has been discounted. The current preferred semi-scientific methodology for choosing winners and losers is body language. Television has made this a participative activity.

Purely on visual evidence, the sag is greater in Lalu Yadav’s body language. This could be because of higher expectations. The last time, Lalu Yadav was contesting alone; this time he has Congress and CPI(M) as allies. In theory this should be enough to ensure victory. Around 50 seats were won and lost the last time by margins of one or two per cent. Lalu should retain those he won marginally, and gain those he lost. Between them the Congress and CPI(M) should have given him an additional ten per cent votes in a substantial number of constituencies. Then why worry?

Bihar is conducting elections in four phases. Exit polls in the second phase offered a curious statistic: it was the NDA, led by Nitish Kumar, that had increased its vote share by one per cent. What was more disturbing for Lalu was that his vote had dropped by 8%. One reason for this may have been accidental. The Election Commission chose, in its wisdom, to schedule polls during the middle of the month of fasting by Muslims. Enthusiasm needs to be pretty high to vote on a hungry stomach and thirsty throat under a sun still in summer mood.

Any drop in the Muslim vote is a straight minus from Lalu’s tally. But the bigger concern could be a consolidation of castes and voters who are committed against Lalu Yadav. Ram Vilas Paswan’s support base has also weakened since the last election. Where have these voters shifted? If they have gone to Nitish Kumar and the NDA then they will become the largest bloc in the Assembly. If they have scattered among independents then the field remains open for carpetbaggers to open their carpets once the results are known in the last week of November.

Then there is the Sari Slide Rule. The origins of this phenomenon are well-known. Last year, the BJP attempted to purchase support in the then Prime Minister’s constituency, Lucknow, by distributing free saris to poor women. Instead of generating votes, the BJP generated a stampede in which lives were lost. The saris turned to ash and the BJP slide accelerated.

The fact is that everyone tries to get away with what he can, but the excesses get caught. There is a kind of mathematical justice. This time in Bihar it is Lalu’s side which is in trouble. We have had the extraordinary situation where the police are looking for a Union Cabinet minister because he entered a lock-up and simply lifted his brother out of jail. This is the Wild West with the benign sanction of Delhi.

The reality is that everyone knows where this Union minister, Jaiprakash Narain Yadav is but the police will not touch him because he is protected by the politically powerful. I was about to suggest this was scandalous, but that is too mild a word. What was this brother doing? He was caught with lakhs of rupees in largely 50-rupee notes, more than fifteen cases of liquor and a gun in his hand. Cash, liquor, gun: the Pirates of Bihar. What is amazing is the absence of outrage. Have we become immune to crime in Bihar?

Delhi is more interested in the consequences of the Bihar results than in the Bihar results. No one is really concerned about Bihar, its administration or its welfare. Lalu’s allies don’t care, or they would not be with him, since he is responsible for the putrid mess in that state. Lalu’s opponents pretend to care, but most of their politics is personal. They want to see Lalu out rather than Bihar improve.

The coalition in Delhi will be relieved if Lalu Yadav’s wife Rabri Devi forms the government again. But if he loses?

Lalu Yadav then has two options. The sensible one is to cut his losses and save what he can from the wreck. He remains a significant player in Delhi and can use his railway ministry and Cabinet berth to fight back. He will no longer have the protection of the Bihar administration and therefore might find it difficult to return in a hurry; and there will certainly be a welter of accusations as evidence from years of malfeasance crawls out of the rot.

The second option is wrath. The target of such wrath will definitely be his Cabinet colleague Ram Vilas Paswan, who has effectively sabotaged Lalu Yadav by breaking the UPA model in Bihar. If Ram Vilas had not put up his slate of candidates, Lalu Yadav would be smiling his cherubic way back to power in Patna. Nitish Kumar and the NDA would have no chance whatsoever. Lalu could legitimately ask why Ram Vilas Paswan was a member of the national ruling alliance if he had helped their opponents come to power in as crucial a state as Bihar. This would link up with what Ram Vilas did with his MLAs in Bihar. It is unlikely that he will sit on any high moral platform and stay out of power. If he does, his MLAs will desert him for ministerships.

If Lalu demands Paswan’s ouster from the Cabinet, those hoping to stitch a Third Front from the crazy quilt of contemporary Indian politics will offer a cheer. The Congress, however, could throw in an elliptical suggestion of its own, by saying that Paswan should head a UPA government in Bihar thereby keeping the NDA out (I assume that no one will get a majority). The Congress would be more anxious to occupy space left behind by a retreating Lalu Yadav than any other party, because the revival of the Congress as a national force hinges around its resurrection in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

You get the point, don’t you? It would be entirely understandable if you didn’t, because logic is not the strong suit of personality-driven politics. If there is a point then it is that the dust that was thrown up by the BJP’s defeat has not yet settled down and as long as it does not, the ground will not be firm enough to seat a stable government in Delhi. After all, the only thing that was decided in the general elections of 2004 was who lost it. The BJP lost it. The jury is still out on who, a word that can absorb both the singular and the plural, is or are the victors.

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