Byline by M J Akbar: The 26th of November
The power of fear is immense and intense. It is axiomatic that evil of the magnitude perpetrated in Mumbai, through a collusion between Pakistan-based hate-filled terrorist organisations like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Indian fifth columnists will have a direct impact on the political mood of the nation. It is inevitable that the mood will reflect on polling in an election season. But we need to understand the nuances of this impact carefully. The hyperinflation of knee-jerk analysis can be toxic to the truth.
Fear, bred by insecurity, can have two political consequences, one of which can be very beneficial to any government. George Bush remained President of the United States for eight years, quite against the odds, because he managed to exploit the American voter's fear of Al Qaeda terrorists. However, he could not have won re-election on rhetoric alone. He had been able to keep a basic commitment. He might have angered the rest of the world, and irritated half of his own country, but he had kept America safe after 9/11.
Fear and insecurity will always instigate anger. It is a question of whom the anger is directed against. Americans concentrated their anger on Al Qaeda because they did not feel betrayed by their own government. They forgave George Bush a hundred vices because he displayed a single virtue.
Indian anger is bursting over in two directions. There is a passionate revulsion against terrorists of course. This was evident in Mumbai when citizens came out of their homes to cheer the heroic commandos who had delivered them from evil. But their second anger was also evident in their chants and slogans. Their impromptu slogans in praise of the motherland were punctuated with slogans demanding an end to Congress rule. The Indian voter is livid at the Congress-led governments in Maharashtra and Delhi because it feels betrayed by those it has elected to power. The voter no longer has much by way of expectation from any government. But if a government cannot deliver, ever, on security, then it is time to pull it down. If the Mumbai outrage had been a first incident, the voter would have given the government a second chance and more. But this government in Delhi has exhausted all its chances.
All fear/anger is not the same. The Indian Muslim voter is both afraid and angry as well, but his sentiments are trapped in confusion. He is angry with the terrorist for using Islam and his problems as an excuse for shocking violence and thereby making him vulnerable. He is afraid of his vulnerability to government retribution: a shamefaced Andhra Pradesh government is handing out Rs 35,000 to each innocent it picked up and tortured. And he is afraid of retribution at the popular level, motivated by leaders of radical Hindu outfits. His vote, therefore, could reflect this confusion. A part of the Muslim vote, possibly a large part, could rush back to the comfort zone of the Congress not because the Congress has done anyone any good but because it is considered less worse than the BJP. A strong section of the Muslim vote will go to third parties, like Mayawati's BSP. And there may be other Muslim voters who will stay at home or vote for Muslim candidates who have no chance of winning. Wasting a vote is a means of showing no confidence in any of the parties on the slate.
The credibility of politicians has taken a hammering in the past week. Television anchors found, some to their shock and others to their happy surprise, that viewers did not want to see the faces of politicians during the long, continuous coverage of the siege at Taj, Oberoi-Trident and Nariman House. Politicians in government got the message quickly enough, and stayed home after a few statements that proved to be either premature, wrong or utterly stupid. Opposition politicians do not have to do anything except keep quiet. Those who could not keep quiet felt the whiplash of public reaction. But in any situation of this sort, it is the government that suffers the loss, since the voter cannot blame the Opposition for negligent, ineffectual and clueless governance. In these days of circulating SMS mobilisation, one crude SMS reflected the shifting mood. It described Manmohan Singh as "Noman" Singh.
If the Congress loses the popular vote in the Assembly elections, then it has no one to blame but itself. Dr Manmohan Singh regularly advertises his close friendship with Bush. All the pictures display a fawning admiring look on Dr Singh's face whenever he is in the company of Bush. Couldn't he have learnt from Bush how to win an election by manipulating fear?
The Delhi Congress is clearly worried that it will lose because of Mumbai. On the morning of the vote, it took out expensive full-page ads trying to suggest that attacks such as these had happened during the BJP's time in power as well, as indeed they had. What the advertisement naturally could not mention was the frequency; or the absence of accountability either in the apprehension of the guilty, or among those at the highest levels of power who should take responsibility. In any case, the voter punished the BJP with five years of exile because of its sins of omission and commission. It won't punish the BJP twice. Only those in office can commit a crime that deserves punishment.
A second SMS I received points out a baffling coincidence. I have not had time to check all the dates of disasters in recent memory, but find no reason to consider them untrue. "The Gujarat earthquake occurred on 26 January, the tsunami on 26 December, Godhra on 26 February, the Gujarat floods on 26 June, the Mumbai train havoc on 26 July and the terrorists struck last week in Mumbai on 26 November."
I suppose that rules out any future election on the 26th of any month.