More Food, Less Fear will win the Future
By M J Akbar
Can you win a general election without winning the argument? Curiously, both the ruling coalition and the principal opposing alliance seem to think so.
The government has a vested interest in fudge. After all, there can be no opposition if there is no position. Its best hope is to muddle through the April-May poll and return with roughly the same numbers through a strategy of least resistance. What is less comprehensible is the response of the BJP. It looks befuddled before fudge. Instead of raising issues, its spokespersons throw pebbles. If you cannot clear a haze, the haze has won the day. The Left has been more successful in creating the tension of a debate, but its resonance is limited to a couple of pockets, while the Third Front is too thin to be considered a net, let alone a magnet.
This is going to be a cold election. Neither candidate nor party will be able to waft on hot air. If the BJP wants to succeed, it has to remember a key fact: the Hindu voter is outgrowing communal rhetoric. He wants more food and less fear. At the moment he is getting the reverse.
The Congress has one advantage: Muslims, its main votebank, do not vote for something; they vote against someone. This suits the Congress perfectly. It feeds fear to Muslims, and offers development to other electorates.
Success breeds imitation, but change, the slogan which dazzled the US in autumn, will be insufficient in an Indian summer. Frustration has stripped the Indian voter of illusions. Offer him change, and he will demand to know to what. Promise him a job and he will ask where, when, how and to whom. Americans gave Obama a pass on delivery systems and destination. The relevant slogan is not the one that defeated Bush the Son, but the one that laid out Bush the Father 16 years ago: ‘‘It’s the economy, stupid!’’
Since no government in its senses would want to contest an election on the economy when jobs are disappearing in cities and farmers are committing suicide in village, the Congress seems poised to offer a virtuous trinity of vitality (Rahul Gandhi), morality (Manmohan Singh) and nobility (Sonia Gandhi). The voter will, however, check for substance behind the advertising. The chief minister of the biggest Congress state, Rajashekhar Reddy, has become synonymous with sleaze. He has lost the plot. Or, more accurately, he has sold the plot to Satyam.
The arithmetic of a cold election will be determined by the sum total of regional numbers. The formation of the next government could depend on how well the allies, rather than the principals, do. The BJP’s partners seem more confident than the Congress’ friends. But such is the perceived fluidity of options that Pranab Mukherjee, Nitish Kumar, Jayalalitha, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Chandra Babu Naidu and Sharad Pawar see themselves as possible occupants of 10 Janpath. They may not agree on anything else, but they believe that neither the Congress nor the BJP will cross the 150-seat mark necessary to become the plank on which a government can rest. The politics of the Nineties and the Noughties has seen the rise of flexible morality leading to an explosion of opportunity.
Will the politics of the Twentytens be different? Yes. There is likely to be fatigue in north and central India with the insular dynamics of small parties, trapped in concentric rings of family and state; and a yearning for political formations that offer more than stagnant regional horizons. The next government in Delhi, like this one, might be less than the sum of its parts, rather than more. There are no institutional methods of re-nourishment once the leaders of small parties become vulnerable to age or accident.
You might then, with good reason, consider 2009 the semi-final election. The finals will take place in the elections after this, probably in 2012 or 2013, when the Congress and the BJP will square off in most parts of the country, sufficient to give one or the other over 200 seats. They will have younger, if not newer leaders, creating the base for single-party majorities again.
The debate will not change, because the problem will not have been resolved. Whoever wins the argument on food and fear in 2012 will control the decade.
Appeared in Times of India - January 25, 2009