Byline by M J Akbar: There is nothing called a dull election
The gem dropped in the middle of a convivial lunch when my friend, apropos of nothing, said: “There is some good news and there is some bad news. The good news is that there is no bad news.”
It has become so fashionable to be mournful about India that we frame current events in the opposite formulation: “There is good news and there is bad news. The bad news is that there is no good news.” My apologies to the professional pessimists, but every Indian election persuades me to remain an optimist. Around half a billion people, spread across a complex ethnic range, from every segment of wealth and poverty, vote to hold authority accountable, and their collective is distilled into the next government: as modern miracles go, this is top of the class.
For me the first day of the Great Indian Poll, henceforth to be known simply as GIP, was good news. From Kerala to Bihar, and through the Red Corridor (as the south-to-north Naxalite belt is now called) the voter challenged lacklustre politics and an overenthusiastic sun to send his and her message to the various shades of the ruling class. But there was a message as well to the insurgents. Voters refused to be intimidated by their guns and mines.
Eighteen died, including half a dozen policemen. Perhaps there would have been fewer dead policemen if the home ministry had not given instructions to them to carry only light arms. It is a bit distasteful to compare death counts, but not too long ago, in a state like Bihar alone, many dozens would die in inter-party, inter-caste and inter-ethnic violence during elections. There was a rather piquant situation at the end of polling on 16 April when Lalu Prasad Yadav, Bihar’s smiling slayer of political foes, demanded a re-poll because “Dalits” and the poor had been attacked with knives in three instances. Frankly, knives are a vast improvement on Bihar’s track record of guns as a means of coercion, but that was not the only catch in the story. It later transpired that in all three cases, Lalu’s supporters had done the attacking. Lalu’s body language was less deceptive than his language. He looked down, if not quite out.
“Extispicy” sounds like a sort of Asian nouvelle cuisine, but it is a form a divination. According to a friend who does a bit of foreseeing herself, it is “Derived from the word for entrails (exta) and the verb to look at (specto), extispicy…is the art of interpreting the entrails of sacrificial animals.” Apparently no Greek or Roman general in his senses would venture into battle without a check of the lungs, liver or intestines of a sacrificial animal. As is with so many things, the practice began in Iraq, Babylon to be precise, and travelled to the Greeks and Romans. The word ‘inaugural’, it seems, originates in the extispicy of chicken: ‘ave’ is bird, and ‘auvger’ the reader of the signs.
The entrails of the 124 seats that went to the polls in the first round lie in three regions and one section of the electorate. The three critical areas are Telangana in Andhra Pradesh, Vidarbha in Maharashtra and those sections of Assam that voted. The Congress numbers hinge on how well it can replicate its success in Andhra five years ago. All the opinion polls that give Congress in the region of 150 seats assume that it will get around 25 seats in Andhra. To reach that figure Congress has to do well in Telangana, since Rayalseema is a Chandrababu Naidu stronghold and Chiranjeevi could produce a few surprises in the coastal belt.
In Vidarbha, which has a long horizontal border with Madhya Pradesh, the BJP and Shiv Sena alliance won 10 of 11 seats in 2004, so there was a good chance of anti-incumbency bringing rewards to Congress and its ally Sharad Pawar. A reversal will dip BJP numbers, which is as much a Congress objective as increasing its own. This is one area from where Congress can offset losses incurred in other regions. In Assam the Congress took most of the seats in the last elections, but the reason why the three seats in which voting is taking place in the Northeast is important because they will indicate the way the Muslim mood is shifting, if it is shifting at all. Congress will be decimated in Assam without Muslim support, and the first indications from Assam are that Badruddin Ajmal, the successful businessman who is maverick enough to risk his finances for politics, has done very well against a heavyweight like Santosh Mohan Dev. It is impossible to predict who is going to win, but very possible to see which community is voting in which direction. Assam’s Muslims have deserted Congress for Ajmal. This will have serious implications for the party in a state that it tends to take for granted.
The news from eastern Uttar Pradesh, which also voted, is similar. In 2004 Muslims voted with passion and unity for either Congress or its allies. In this election, their vote is splintering, with the candidate rather than the party being the principal draw. In Varanasi, they have voted for Mukhtar Ansari, a man who they have not seen, for the good reason that he is in prison. Ansari is considered a criminal, but he had the right name. Elsewhere, the vote has gone to Mulayam Singh Yadav or to new parties that are unafraid to say that they will represent only the Muslim interest.
There is nothing called a dull election in India, which is why no one knows the outcome. The vote of 2009 is, as the saying goes, a mystery wrapped in an enigma. The opinion polls are nothing but expensive opinions. Just check the entrails.