Saturday, May 23, 2009

Season of Mellow Music

Byline by M J Akbar: Season of mellow music

Has the BJP got trapped in the Bosnia joke: nothing can succeed, not even a crisis? As the party thinks its way through the present impasse, it needs two things that politicians avoid since both come with uncomfortable demands: clarity and honesty. Arun Jaitley, the general secretary who played a significant part in shaping the campaign, summed it all up succinctly when he said, “Shrillness does not pay.” It would be too much to expect Jaitley to dwell in public on the shrillness that characterised the rhetoric of too many disparate BJP candidates, the most notable of whom was of course the overblown Varun Gandhi, but one presumes that he has made the point in private confabulations that must be taking place in the BJP leadership.

No one, and particularly not anyone young, wants the shriek of conflict to disturb the peace of India. Throwing pebbles at any caste, community or gender is a vote-loser. India still loves a preacher, as the epidemic of religious channels on television would indicate, but it has no time for the bully. Independence is not an esoteric political fact, handed down to us by Gandhi and his remarkable generation. Independence is now the motif of individual life. Young people who go to bars do not interfere with those who might seek solace in the brotherhood of the Bajrang Dal. In return, they expect the Dal to leave them alone to their definition of pleasure. It is with great difficulty that Indians tolerate the police; reason forces them to do so even when their instinct tells them to ride around or beyond the law in the small matters of daily existence. Why on earth would they have any patience with a moral police in a free society?

It is perfectly possible to note trends of political behaviour in the changing patterns of Indian life. Urban middle class Indians throng towards malls; the poor aspire for them. The mall is now a community centre for the young. They see merit in order, availability, convenience and of course the air conditioning. The corner shop is being replaced. The vendor will gradually be displaced. The old market, a collection of individual vendors, now represents haggling and uncertain quality. Regional parties are the vendors of the political marketplace, and the sound of their haggling, compounded with their uncertain quality, has begun to grate on the voter. He did not abandon the corner shop completely — neither has India — but he preferred the mall. Between the two principal centres available, he chose the tricolour variety in 2009.

The BJP can take comfort in the fact that it is also a mall, but in need of serious redecoration as well as a radical reorientation in its display of goods. In some basics there is no difference between the saffron and the tricolour malls. They share a common economic policy, which is after all the meat and bones of the political shop. There is not much difference in foreign policy either. The divergence comes in the culture of the environment. People want pilau and papad to coexist even if they are not available in the same restaurant. You cannot impose a vegetarian code on a public environment. Freedom means the right to choose, and you can choose only if there is choice.

A modern nation is much more than a collection of skyscrapers or fantasy cities shimmering in the middle of nowhere. It is an idea that permits the individual to live without fear. Sometimes (often?) this absence of fear can degenerate into licence. We need to go no further than the nearest urban street to see how an Indian can stretch freedom into chaos. I often feel that we need our new highways not for speed but simply for mobility, for they eliminate the Indian driver’s ability to overtake illegally, or cross lanes; the only real damage he can now do is to himself. But no Indian is going to exchange the confusions of intemperate behaviour for dictatorship. Governments have learnt to abjure dictatorship after the Emergency. Parties who feel that they can invoke fear, whether against women, or lower castes, or upper castes, or minorities have missed the social and cultural nuances of a changing India.

It is entirely symmetrical that Dr Manmohan Singh should be the first Prime Minister to be re-elected after Rajiv Gandhi gave the 18-year-old the vote. The young did not give the Congress all its 206 seats. And there were young voters who supported other parties as well. But I suspect that more detailed analysis will show that the young tipped perhaps forty or fifty seats towards the Congress, turning a victory into a decisive victory. In this fact lies a serious danger for the Congress.

The young are wonderful when enamoured; they turn deadly when disappointed. In 2004, India was a bit surprised by the sudden presence of a new government. This time, it was the turn of the Opposition to be surprised by defeat. A deliberate vote for continuity has raised expectations to a point where non-delivery is going to extract a heavy penalty. The days of politics, as usual, are over. You cannot be blasé about a claim that only five or ten paise per development rupee reaches the voter. You have to change this corrupt equation, because it is corruption, by the rich and middle class that is denying the poor their rights. We talk glibly of the young. Our image of them is the one promoted in media, in tees and jeans. But this fringe of rich or middle class youth is vastly outnumbered by youth on subsistence levels, in slums and villages. The Naxalite brigades are full of Indian young, and you cannot dismiss them as pernicious enemies or terrorists, without asking what has driven them to the safety of a jungle and the anger of a gun. They were born in India, and are asking for the jobs that can bring them food, T-shirts and jeans.

A party’s crisis is nothing compared to a nation’s crisis, and vast stretches of India are in an unprecedented crisis. If the BJP wants to get out of its Bosnia trap then there is only one way out: the rhetoric of conflict must be replaced by the calm of consensus; and the promise of wealth creation has to be accompanied by radical wealth distribution. As Jaitley has recognised, discord is shrill. India wants more mellow music.

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