Election scene: Modern Mansabdari in the making
by Virendra Parekh on 30 Mar 2009 0 Comment

If you can’t give them (Plebs) bread, give them the circus, rulers of ancient Rome used to say. Many people in India still go without bread. But the circus is here. Rejoice.

With general elections round the corner, Indian democracy is on the move. It is alive and kicking. More kicking than alive, cynics would say. TV channels and newspapers go out of their way to make it sound and look entertaining. None can deny that watching an election campaign is fun mixed with suspense and excitement.

But if we keep aside the calculated buffoonery and posturing of parties and leaders, the political scene that emerges behind the massive verbiage of moves, countermoves, claims, allegations, refutations and repartees only creates a sense of trepidation and apprehension about the nature of Indian society and the likely direction of our polity and economy.

Political fragmentation

As the world is getting integrated into a global village, our polity is getting split horizontally and vertically along all conceivable lines. The bewildering social diversity of India is now being transformed into political fragmentation. The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the two largest national political parties, have suffered massive erosion in their respective political bases. On current indications, it is doubtful if either of them can win 150 seats for itself.

Eager to capture the space vacated by the national parties, many small and medium entities have begun to flex their muscles. Thanks to the overweening sense of self-importance or greed of many bit players, the two main coalitions that had emerged over the last few years - the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance - have begun to come apart.

Poverty of leadership

At the root of the fragmented polity is a poverty of leadership. People are regressing back to their caste, communal or regional identities, because there is no national leadership which can inspire people to rise above their narrow identities with an elevating and inclusive vision, and weld the different groups together into a coherent national whole.

Gone are the days when a monolithic Congress, the Grand Old Party of Indian politics, was a virtually unchallenged brand leader in the electoral market. Today, Congress’ plight is pitiable. It has been snubbed and deserted by its allies in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and forced into a second-class citizen alliance with Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. In Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar has forced Congress to give a seat to NCP’s ally Ramdas Athavale from the Congress quota, and has not concealed his ambition to become prime minister. In Tamil Nadu, if the PMK walks out of the UPA and allies with Ms J Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, it could spell serious trouble for Congress and the DMK.

Congress can hope to retain some of its hold in Andhra Pradesh due to a three-way split, with Mr Chiranjeevi’s party hurting the Telugu Desam. It can also hope to do well in Kerala and possibly make minor gains in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. In almost every other major State, it is likely to lose seats.

If this is the condition of the ‘natural party of governance,’ its principal adversary, the BJP, is hardly in better shape. From ‘a party with a difference,’ it is reduced to a party with differences, ridden with internal dissension and internecine rivalry among its second rung leaders. Mr. Arun Jaitley’s outburst against “wheeler dealers” gaining prominence in the party’s election strategy reminds one of the same charge levelled earlier by the fiery Uma Bharati. Those who expected the BJP to champion the cause of Hindu nationalism are even more bitterly disappointed with BJP. 

Real issues ignored

It is not that there are no issues of real concern to the electorate. But the parties lack the credibility to raise them in a convincing manner.

Take, for example, the issue of internal security in the wake of terrorism and Maoist violence. The record of Congress has been pathetic: its response to 26/11 has not gone beyond pleading with Pakistan and the US, besides spending crores of rupees for the safety of the lone killer caught alive!

It has preferred not to hang the culprit sentenced to death by the Supreme Court in the case of terrorist attack on Parliament. And it sought to derail the debate on terrorism by implicating a few Hindu sadhus and others in the Malegaon blast case.

The BJP’s record of tackling cross-border terrorism is hardly better. Remember Kandahar and Akshardham? Its distinctive nationalist agenda (Ayodhya, Article 370, Common Civil Code) remains valid, but the BJP cannot invoke it because people know that it will drop that agenda at the first whiff of power.

On economy, Congress claims credit for the rapid GDP growth in recent years, but blames the global financial crisis for the current slowdown. People are unconvinced. On infrastructure and prices, no party has covered itself with glory. However, state governments that have delivered results on BSP (bijli-sadak-paani) front have been rewarded by grateful voters.

Vacuum and after

The weakness of the national parties has whetted the ambitions of regional parties, small and big. Many feel that the combined tally of the Congress and BJP, which narrowly crossed the half-way mark in the Lok Sabha in 2004, may well fall below the magic figure of 272 on 16 May 2009. In other words, there is at least a theoretical possibility of all the smaller groups (including those nominally attached to the UPA or NDA) forging a non-Congress, non-BJP government. This prospect has encouraged some into launching a Third Front that excludes both national parties.

Despite the opportunities presented by the current situation, the Third Front has not quite taken off. This is not surprising as it has no pre-eminent party that can act as a nucleus, or a coherent idea of alternative economic policies, or foreign policy. Then there is the problem of unbridled ambitions of leaders. Mayawati, Sharad Pawar, Chandrababu Naidu, Jayalalithaa, Deve Gowda – each wants to be prime minister. With anyone free to enter or exit at will, the Third Front has been ridiculed as a railway waiting room, a parking lot and worse.

But forget the Front for the moment. The stark reality is that we now have a large number of parties which have no ideology, no national vision or perspective, no programme, no scruples and no morality. Virtually anyone can go with anyone else. Will Pawar stick to Congress or join hands with Shiv Sena? Chandra Babu Naidu, Karunanidhi, Mayawati, Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee can join hands with any party or leader, if the terms are favourable.

Mansabdari returns

It is very likely that in the next Lok Sabha, it may not be possible for either of the two main parties to form any kind of government without the support of a large number of other parties. In other words, it would look as though India is probably headed for another coalition, far messier than either the NDA or the UPA, constantly at the mercy of sundry politicians.

That cannot be good news for the economy that faces a fiscal over-run, complex monetary challenges, risk to its credit ratings, and a country-wide slowdown. Already the depressed global and local economic conditions are discouraging companies from investing, and investors abroad from sending in funds. A messy, fractious coalition will act as a further deterrent.

Recent experience shows that such arrangements could be very costly for the country. Under the UPA, for example, the DMK pretty much decided the way the telecom ministry would be run and cocked a snook at even the Prime Minister who publicly objected to the manner in which the last lot of mobile phone licences was handed out for virtually a fifth or a sixth of market value. The Nationalist Congress Party ran the aviation ministry as it wanted. Coal licences, till recently, were given out in an arbitrary manner.

For all its pretensions to modernity and democracy, such a coalition government resembles nothing more than the old Mansabdari system of the medieval India: the greater the number of horsemen you can offer to the king, the greater the size of the territory for you to pillage.

In such a scenario, it is pointless to speculate over who will be the next prime minister. It would be more pertinent to ask what kind of prime minister we may have. Forget the authority of Morarji Desai, decisiveness of Indira Gandhi or purposeful cunning of Narasimha Rao. Indeed, the personality of the prime minister would hardly matter. We may have a prime minister whose biggest political asset will be his pliability, which makes him acceptable to a large number of disparate groups.

Once in power, his/her first priority will always be to keep the coalition intact, to keep partners in good humour, to survive in power from month to month, week to week, day to day. Demands of good governance, economic reforms, internal security or even external threat can wait. What must be attended immediately is the dispute between coalition partners, demand for some post, some contract, some plant location…    

Nightmare scenario

This is the possibility that is giving nightmares to all right-thinking Indians. The fact is that the electoral system we have adopted is deeply flawed. It just does not enable us to ascertain the view of the majority in every constituency and at the macro level in the country. Nearly half the voters stay away from polling stations, which lets a small but fiercely committed minority to ‘win’ the seat. As A Surya Prakash has pointed out in The Pioneer, the results of the Lok Sabha election do not represent the opinion of the majority of India’s electorate, but the aggregate of opinions of hundreds of minorities. Combine this flaw with the first-past-the-post system and you realise how illogical the democratic system has become.

With every election there is growing cynicism about politicians, parties and the system. If we want to avoid a situation when people lose all their faith in democracy, we need to take a fresh look at our electoral system and take measures to ensure that the will of the majority, both at the constituency and national level, prevails. If the results of the forthcoming election nudge us in that direction, the election would have served a great purpose.

The author is Executive Editor, Corporate India, and lives in Mumbai

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