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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Random reflections on the Delhi election 2015

There are lessons to be learnt from every election. What of the February 7 Delhi election? There have been non-stop dissections and analyses on ‘what, why and how’ it happened in what is called the ‘mainstream media’ since yesterday morning. The analysts’ spiels, informed by personal and political predilections, were marshalled over time, tested cautiously after the exit polls and screamed in a crescendo of rising pitch as the results appeared. The underlying theme of the analyses ran true to form – reflecting their pathological hatred for Modi, the BJP and Hindutwa. The adage ‘an enemy’s enemy is my friend!’ couldn’t be more truly applied to any other case than to their approach to Mr. Narendra Modi. The difference this time is the willy-nilly contribution of the subject (the BJP or sections of it) itself to its own torment.

The reasons too have been thrashed threadbare and there is no need to go into them. But some arguments are incongruous. If the voter couldn’t care less whether Arvind Kejriwal flies economy class or business class or even in a chartered jet, would he be put off by a suit worn by Narendra Modi?

If the voter voted for the BJP, ‘he inexplicably fell prey to the machinations of the Hindutwa forces’; if the voter votes out the BJP, ‘he voted wisely to defeat communal forces’. If Baba Ramdev canvasses for votes, ‘the BJP is communalising the election’. If a Fr. Frazer Mascarenhas or a Imam Bukhari issues a fatwa calling for the defeat of the BJP it is ‘a valourous attempt to defeat communal forces’. Don’t they have freedom of speech?

There however appear to be two key determinants in this election that the pundits either did not notice or did not articulate because it is politically incorrect to do so. If they did, it would not be possible to sing paeans to the ‘sagacity of the ordinary Indian voter’ and ‘the triumph of Indian democracy’ in the same breath.

The two factors are apathy towards corruption and a penchant for freebies, which are interlinked. It is quite simple. Why should the voter bother whether a leader travels economy class or business class or uses the executive jet provided by a businessman whom he bashes in carefully choreographed press briefings? All he is interested in is the promise of free electricity, free water and if possible a free colour television. Hasn’t it worked in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh in the past? There may be long power outages in the hinterland of Andhra Pradesh but it affects only someone who has an air-conditioner at home or someone who runs a factory. Colour televisions given away in Tamil Nadu may have only ornamental value (because of power outages in rural areas) but recipients can always sell them in second hand shops and await the next election. Government employees in Uttar Pradesh may arrive late and exit early but it affects only those who have to visit these offices.

Any attempt to discipline this privileged class will adversely affect the electoral fortunes of those who attempt to discipline them as Jayalalithaa and Chandrababu Naidu found out in the past. They not only form a large electoral block which can make a difference to an election but more importantly they administer – and possibly can manipulate – electoral processes.

It takes time to fix an economy mired in inefficiency and an administration steeped in corruption. It takes time to put in place basic infrastructure – like electricity, roads and water, and contain inflation. It is not possible to distribute wealth without first generating it. 

But these are concepts the ordinary voter neither cares nor understands. Why should he? For him subsistence today is more important than a vague promise of tomorrow. He is really not bothered whether a leader lives in a large villa or a 200-crore palatial bungalow. Let a neta embezzle 1000 crores or even 10000 crores. It is a perquisite that comes with the profession! The ordinary voter is neither awed nor shocked by the ostentation or the vulgarity of greed in Delhi where there is a millionaire under every brick and where Audis and Bentleys could be seen crawling like ants at traffic intersections. The poor man would be happy to get the little trinket that is promised to him. The poor man is really not bothered whether AAP has received huge moneies from shell companies whose address does not exist as long as he gets a 500 or 1000-rupee note along with his voter slip. This time around the AAP is sitting pretty. It could claim credit for fulfilling its promises, if it does. It could also wring its hands and plead helplessness for failing to do so, pointing fingers at an un-cooperative centre. It is a win-win situation! For it the next battle is five years away. 

In 2009 someone pointed out that to fill all the promises made by the Congress party or its rival the TDP in Andhra Pradesh, the state budget would not be adequate. Competitive populism of offering freebies is like riding a tiger for the political parties. None dares desisting it, lest it gave an advantage to a competitor. Just as they all ganged up to resist being brought under the ambit of the RTI they would not come together to legislate to restrict electoral promises to what is feasible. What is the way forward? Why, judicial activism so abhorred by the cynical politicians. For that some public spirited citizen must approach the courts with a PIL. 

P.S.: A little bird in the social media forums says that a war chest of Rs 7-8000 crores was deployed to defeat the BJP in the election! There are also dark hints that certain interests inimical to India’s majority religion have unleashed an insidious campaign.