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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