Facebook Badge

Showing posts with label Mayawati. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mayawati. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cutting Through the Election Noise

Confusion Has Made its Masterpiece

A burgeoning middle class, a slowing economy, a creeping intolerance, a terrorist challenge, and a growing voice in the world: these are the challenges and the opportunities that face the country as it prepares for the next general election. Yet the issues being raised in the campaign are largely about caste and religion; the debate is about yesterday, not even today.

The BJP is floundering over Varun Gandhi’s intemperate outburst against Muslims, afraid to alienate its communal “base” and worried about losing the new middle class support it has gained in the past decade. It went ballistic over the shoe-throwing incident at a Congress press conference and sought to revive, after 25 years, anger over the anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.

Perhaps the worst case of the BJP’s growing irrelevance is Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, who, in a recent campaign speech, pejoratively called the Congress Party a 125-year-old woman. Modi is not just the fascist shame of Gujarat; he is obviously prejudiced towards women and old people. We know that like Shakespeare’s pathetic Macbeth, he harbors ambitions of being Prime Minister.

Given his intemperate ways, Modi is a poor player like bloody Macbeth, who “struts and frets his hour upon the stage …full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Meanwhile, Gujarat, like Macbeth’s Scotland, “sinks beneath (his) yoke. It weeps. It bleeds and each new day a gash is added to her wounds.”

Commissars of the Left and bosses of various regional factions are pushing aggressively for a “Third Front” government that excludes both the Congress and the BJP. Chieftains of the various caste formations in the Hindi heartland are busy posturing over the prospect that their “Fourth Front” could emerge as a key power broker in the event of a hung Parliament. Neither front has a coherent strategy except to fish in troubled waters.

As always, the Congress maintains a stoic silence amid the din of its rivals; its game plan is to emerge as the single largest party and then gain adherents from the various fronts. Amazingly, it has never been forced to defend its record of governance in the past five years. Its economic policies have included questionable populist giveaways and timid monetary policies. Its foreign policy has been reactive and tactical in the face of challenges from all around the neighborhood including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

More than at any other time, there seems to be a complete disconnect between politics and the new reality. The nearly 20 million new voters of 1991 vintage have grown up in an India where possibilities are endless. More important, they believe that tomorrow has to be better than today. This is in stark contrast to the generation of “Midnight’s Children.” We were wracked by uncertainty so we voted with our feet and pushed off overseas, ostensibly to study but truly to make our fortune.

Today’s children want to go to America like we did. The difference is they want to gain skills and expertise and come back home to lucrative jobs. Their worldview is different. Never mind if they are rural poor, urban slum dwellers or middle class youth. They have no patience; they want it all and they want it now. The political class simply doesn’t understand this driving force largely because it runs on a feudal ethic.

Also in evidence is a curiously cynical lethargy: not a single party has outlined a plan to deal with the rapidly growing middle class and the concomitant demands for good governance. Mindsets of yesteryear preclude the recognition of the middle class. The focus is exclusively on the poor, one segment of the population that is declining in number. This particular quirk is the single most powerful sign that the political class is out of touch with the rapidly changing demography.

Consequently, voters must decide without the benefit of an informed debate on the issues. This election is the first one in which men and women born in 1991 will cast their votes. This is a brand new generation that has grown up in an era of liberalization and globalization. Seen against the rise of a 300-million-strong middle class, it is clear that a consumer economy is taking root.

What’s worse, the media simply don’t get it. Thus we are told that Mayawati is a candidate for the top office. This is simply incredible. With the 30 or 40 odd seats she may garner, mostly in Uttar Pradesh, it is difficult to imagine such an outcome. Yes, V P Singh, Chandra Shekhar, H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral did make it. All of them were supported on the outside by the Congress or the BJP. They ran rump governments that lasted few months.

It ain’t gonna happen with Mayawati, who wins sympathy as a Dalit woman but is nevertheless accused of milking her supporters to build statues of herself. Shamelessly, she has built herself a Xanadu-like palace called BSP House on Delhi’s pricey Sardar Patel Marg. Just because you happen to be a Dalit woman doesn’t mean you cannot be questioned on ethical considerations. It’s all very well to say that everyone’s corrupt in the political domain. But why should the same scrutiny not apply to her?

Whatever the pundits say, it is clear that neither Advani nor Mayawati, never mind the other pretenders, is about to become the next Prime Minister.

A Version of This Column Appeared in The Times of India, April 14, 2009

copyright rajiv desai 2009

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Can a Barack Obama rise in India?

Regrettably the answer is in the negative.

Indian politics is feudal, driven by divisive agendas of caste, ethnicity and religion. It is also nepotistic, fueled by ties of kinship. The political class has no ideology, except knee-jerk responses evoked by flawed and leftover notions of socialism, secularism and nonalignment. The system that has grown out of the cloud of an opaque democracy is chaotic and plutocratic. It exploits the twin sores of poverty and disparity. Politicians tend to be kleptomaniacs, who seek rent for providing governance by exception. Their supporters are primarily favour seekers; in this ethical morass, conformity and sycophancy are valued over innovation and competence.

The amorphous world of Indian politics is currently in focus because state elections are at hand. Driving around my assembly district, I see newly-established offices of the Congress, the BJP and the BSP. Just one look into them and it becomes evident that they serve as a hangout for unemployed, uneducated youth, who sit around hoping for a handout of few rupees to get them through the day. In sharp contrast, American campaign offices are a productive buzz of volunteers and party staffers, churning out voter lists, poll data and demographic profiles. Someone is in charge and the field office is responsible for getting the vote out in favor of the party candidate.

Thus, Barack Obama came out of nowhere, a young mixed-race person from a broken home, the son of an immigrant Kenyan father and a peripatetic white mother from Kansas. He has lived in Hawaii, Indonesia and Midwest USA; attended the finest universities on the East Coast and graduated with high honours in political science and law. He taught at the University of Chicago Law School and then spurned an academic career to become a community organiser in the city’s impoverished and mostly black South Side. Over the years, he rose through the ranks of city and state politics to be elected a US senator in 2004.

In 2007, he announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States and launched a superb campaign focused on the message of change. He used information technology to build a network of support groups all over the country and to raise funds, in small denominations; in the event, he accumulated the largest ever campaign treasury in the history of American presidential elections. He exudes coolness, compassion and an intellectual brilliance that won him not just votes but the deep admiration of youth, Latinos, women and blacks. Indeed Obama fired the imagination of the whole world. As such, when he is inaugurated in January 2009, he will be America’s first global president.

The stark difference between the grass-roots operations and the political aspirations of the world’s two largest democracies speaks of the difference in governance. In the US, governance tends to be positive and enlightened. Roads are well maintained; there is round-the-clock power and water (that you can drink straight from the tap). There are excellent government schools and well-stocked community libraries. Local governments operate and maintain parks and recreation services. They also provide a variety of social services for the aged and the handicapped as also efficient mass transport.

In India, there is little or no governance. Except for Lutyens Delhi, home of the power elite, most of India is rubble-strewn, unkempt and unfinished; pocked with inadequate roads, erratic power and water supply and virtually no law enforcement, let alone education or health care. The random manner in which civic authorities operate shows how kleptocracy works. Roads are patched rather than re-done; of a 10 km road approved for funding, just half gets built and the rest remains ragged and jagged. A multiplicity of bus stops is set up in some places and none at all in others. Central verges start to collapse immediately after they are finished.

Outsourced as it is to an increasingly rusty ‘steel frame’ bureaucracy, governance has very little to do with the delivery of public goods and services. Instead, it has become a muscular exercise to plunder money from the public treasury and to keep the citizenry at bay. Even a third-rate politician like Mayawati travels in an envelope of ‘Black Cat’ security cover, directed less at personal safety than at making a statement of power to her impoverished dalit supporters. In her warped understanding of politics, Mayawati seeks to impress her base with such over-the-top displays. “Look at me,” she seems to say, “I’m as powerful as upper-caste rulers, and I can do things for you.”

Meanwhile, swarms of corrupt and venal bureaucrats at all levels of government excavate age-old laws and regulations with a view to extorting money from citizens. Not too long ago, some of them visited my office and informed the manager that on the basis of something done by a long-dead former owner, the building was in violation some code and therefore illegal. We haven’t heard from them since but they may well have “opened a file,” giving them the option to harass us whenever they choose. Maybe they need to fund a wedding in the family; or send a son to an overseas university or whatever. Nobody in the political world can rein in democratic India’s marauding bureaucrats. That’s because no politician even thinks of governance. It’s all about power and pelf, unmindful of the citizenry.

No, a Barack Obama cannot rise in India. A Nero, a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao…maybe.

an edited version of this column appeared in education world, december 2008