Saturday, 23 May 2009

The Four Cs

There is little doubt that four Cs have been the bane of Indian politics for some time now. They are – not necessarily in order of importance or significance – communalism, criminalisation of politics, corruption and casteism. Each of these (barring criminalisation) was made a major issue by some political grouping or the other. So what verdict did voters give? I feel that despite fulminating against all these evils and blaming politicians for fostering them, people haven’t reacted sufficiently against them.


Everybody says that Verdict 2009 was a vote for the middle path, that people rejected the politics of polarisation. The evidence that is being offered is:

# the poor performance of the BJP, which also found its vote share dropping from 22.4 per cent in 2004 to 18.8 per cent in 2009.

# the lacklustre performance of the party in Gujarat – headed by an extremely polarising Narendra Modi – where also its vote share dropped from 47.37 per cent to 46.52 per cent and it managed to increase its 2004 tally of 14 seats by just one (it now has 15 seats in Gujarat).

# the poor performance of the Shiv Sena – far more polarising than the BJP or even Modi – which won only 11 of the 47 seats it contested and found its vote share dropping from 1.81 per cent in 2004 to 1.55 in 2009.

But is this enough to presume a rejection of communal politics? Somehow I am not sure. After all a hate-spewing Varun Gandhi won, with a huge margin. Of course, there is the possibility that this could be because his mother had nurtured that constituency. And the BJP’s lacklustre performance across the country is being attributed to the disenchantment with its lack of firm action against Varun. But I am fairly sure that the hate speech – or at least the over-the-top action taken against him – did swing things in his favour. The drop in the party’s vote share in Gujarat between 2004 and 2009 is less than 1 per cent. That means the Modi brand of politics still has a significant number of takers.

If the Shiv Sena did poorly, it had a lot to do with the fact that the Maharashtra Navnirman Samiti, which had exactly the same plank as the Shiv Sena, cut into its votes hugely, something that made Bal Thackeray fume publicly.


I have always held that the Indian voters may love to carp about corruption in plush drawing rooms as well as DTC buses, but that is hardly an issue in elections. Yes, it became an issue in 1989, when the Bofors scandal shook the nation. But that was probably because of the scale of corruption involved and that the Prime Minister himself was under a cloud. But has it ever been an issue after that? Why, Rajiv Gandhi was all set to return to power n 1991 when he was assassinated. Sukh Ram, the telecom minister in whose house currency notes were found stashed in mattresses, had no problem getting elected. The DMK and the AIADMK keep getting voted in and out alternately even though they are known to be corrupt. Similar examples abound. So if anyone thinks voters are going to rise in anger against corruption and throw bribe-seeking politicians out, they would be well advised to perish the thought.


Many people I know have been heaving a sigh of relief that high-profile criminals like Atiq Ahmad, Mitrasen Yadav, Mukhtar Ansari, Taslimuddin, Abu Azmi and Mohd Tahir as well as the wives of Pappu Yadav and Mohammed Shahabuddin got defeated. But the verdict against criminalisation is also mixed. The Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), which has been tracking the financial and criminal backgrounds of legislators has done an analysis of the winners in these elections and its findings are interesting:

# The number of MPs with criminal charges has actually increased – from 128 in 2004 to 153 in 2009.

# The number of MPs with serious criminal records has also increased – from 55 to 74 – between 2004 and 2009.

But there appears to be a silver lining.

# In 85 per cent of constituencies where only one candidate had criminal cases, voters chose the clean candidates. In 68 per cent of constituencies where there were two candidates with criminal backgrounds, clean candidates were chosen. The percentage of clean candidates however went down to around 40 per cent in constituencies with four or five candidates.

The press releases (available on the ADR website are not very well drafted and I am not sure if I have paraphrased them properly. The data in the tables is also a bit confusing – how does ADR define criminal charges and serious criminal charges, for example. (This isn’t nitpicking but even defying prohibitory orders to demonstrate is a crime under the IPC). Anyway, this this gives a sense of the general drift – there is no overwhelming verdict against criminalisation.


Of the four Cs, I am most optimistic about the role of caste diminishing. I know I am sticking my head out by saying this, given how the caste composition of a constituency determines the choice of candidates. Some people also cite the poor showing by Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, which won only 21 of the 500 seats it contested and couldn’t put up a sterling performance even in Uttar Pradesh where it is in power as further proof of the voter rejection of caste-based appeals, which also polarise. But the BSP actually increased its vote share to 6.12 per cent from 5.35 per cent in 2004. why I am confident in spite of that, is that I believe Mayawati’s debacle has to do with a range of factors that relate to governance, among other things. The upper castes who voted for her in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in 2007 had done so because she held out hope for an alternative to the corrupt and criminalised Samajwadi Party government. There was no way they would have voted for a Dalit party, whose slogan was `tilak, tarazu aur talwar, inko maaro joote chaar’. When they found her government was not very different, they dumped her. So when they believed she would perform, her caste didn’t matter. When she belied those expectations, her caste-based appeals didn’t work.

Clearly, we are going to have to suffer the four Cs for some more time. They cannot be eliminated unless voters rise decisively against them.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Verdict 2009

Thank God we’ve got a stable government at the Centre. The thought that a rag-tag bunch of either the Third Front or Fourth Front would come to power or even play a decisive role in any government formation was giving me sleepless nights. Through the elections, I had only one thought - that either the BJP or the Congress should come to power on its own or at least in such a decisive position that crucial policies and governance aren't held to ransom by regional or caste- and individual-based parties with no national vision at all. The shenanigans of the Dravidian parties over the Sri Lanka issue only reinforced my misgivings about regional parties playing a decisive role at the Centre.
The people of India have clearly voted for stability. They want a government that lasts for five years and is not pushed into inaction by blackmailing small parties that have no vision for the country. Or an outdated vision, as in the case of the Left parties. Parenthetically, maybe the Left should be given credit for this win. Maybe if they hadn't been so disruptive and pig-headed, such a clear mandate may not have come about!
This is a vote for national parties to form the government at the Centre. The BJP has emerged as the second largest party. So the contest was really between the Congress and the BJP (as BJP's Arun Jaitley had been saying time and again for a long time), and the people preferred the Congress to the BJP.
That said, I don’t think regional and small parties have lost their relevance. In fact, regional parties have a significant role to play in such a vast country like India. Regional parties have arisen in a particular context and have caught the public imagination because of genuine grievances. N T Rama Rao became a huge success in Andhra Pradesh in the 1980s, riding on the Telugu pride wave, because the Congress chief ministers there were seen to be nothing more than dummies of the Centre, who were changed at the will of Indira Gandhi. The DMK and AIADMK were always regional parties, but they have tapped into an emotion which national parties like the Congress (which was once a force in the state) never did. Whether it is the Asom Gana Parishad, the Akali Dal, the National Conference or the People’s Democratic Party, the fact cannot be denied that regional parties articulate and address state-level issues in a way national parties cannot or do not.
The problem begins when these regional parties start playing a major role at the Centre. Then they are not able to replace their regional perspective with a national perspective. They are not interested in reconciling regional issues with national issues, as the Dravidian parties stand on Tamil Eelam shows. Does that mean they should have no presence at all in Parliament? No. They need to articulate regional issues at the national level so that policy making is more balanced. But should they be in such a position (as they have been in the NDA and the UPA governments) where they hold national policies (especially foreign and economic policies) and their implementation to ransom. The answer to that also is No.
But there is an interesting facet to the performance of regional parties in these elections. Not all regional parties have been decimated. TDP and AIADMK were punished because they chose to go along with a Left-led cluster which got identified by completely irresponsible politics. The Asom Gana Parishad, which once fired the imagination of the youth, had gone into a decline for some time now and got only one seat. But parties like the JD(U) in Bihar, BJD in Orissa, National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir, who were never identified with blackmailing tactics when they were part of the NDA, not just won but won handsomely.
The outlier is Samajwadi Party’s performance in UP. But that has more to do with voter disillusionment with Mayawati than anything else. Ditto for the Trinamul Congress (Mamata Banerjee can be quite, quite irresponsible). The TMC and the Congress benefited from the huge, huge disillusionment with the Left in Bengal).
So the second crystal clear fact about this election is this – people have voted against irresponsible politics.

What Next?

Is the decisive win for the Congress going to change the way the party functions and the way the new government will function?

It’s probably in bad taste to raise this issue, but when I saw Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh addressing the press yesterday, the body language was not that of two equals, which is what it should have been if one assumes that the Congress was voted back on the basis of performance of the government. Singh was not deferential towards Sonia, but the sense one got was of her being the dominant one of the team.

That misgiving got further reinforced when I saw Jyotiraditya Scindia on NDTV talking about Rahul as Prime Minister. Utterly disgusting any way but even more so coming from a young man whose father was considered prime minister material and the only thing coming in his way was the Dynasty.

I am raising this issue because there is a larger question involved – the Congress may have got a free hand vis-à-vis its allies, but how much of a free hand will Singh get vis-à-vis his own party? The separation of the party president’s post and the prime minister’s post is good, but the balance between the two is an uneasy one in any party and is likely to be non-existent in a dynastic party like the Congress.

Will Singh have a free hand to pick his team? In the last government, apart from the coalition partners who were in a position to dictate terms, there were any number of Congress ministers who were foisted on Singh because they were family loyalists and who made public display of the fact that they owed their allegiance not to the Prime Minister but to Sonia Gandhi. They functioned pretty much like loose cannons and Singh could do nothing to rein them in. The coalition pressures will still be there but will Singh be able to hold his own against party pressures?

I am also worried about is the impact of the election results on economic policy, especially because of the talk that this is a vote for the middle path etc. Already Congress leaders are going around talking about how schemes like NREGA, farm loan waivers etc brought in the votes. A lot of the economic thinking in the Congress is woolly-headed socialism and I fear that the mandate will be seen as one for such bleeding heart policies and they will just continue.

What the country needs is a good dose of drastic economic, administrative and police reforms. I, certainly, will judge Singh by what he does on all three counts, now that he is not shackled by blackmailing allies.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Challenging Political Cartels

Independents in the poll fray are increasingly facing criticism. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called them spoilers. Singh's harsh words can be forgiven - even dismissed - as arising from pique, since they cut into votes. All political parties feel that way about Independents.

But when a columnist like Shekhar Gupta starts questioning their relevance, as he has done in this article, then it is time to worry.

Gupta is pretty scornful of people like Meera Sanyal, the banker who contested from Mumbai South, and Capt Gopinath, the founder of Air Deccan who contested from Bangalore South, and even Mallika Sarabhai, the danseuse who contested against L K Advani from Ahmedabad. He says they `betray an ignorance of our democracy’ and `lack respect for the ordinary voter’. Party politics, for him, is the essence of parliamentary democracy and Independents are trying to invent a new kind of politics that is `undemocratic’.

Firstly, I fail to understand how contesting for an election is `a lack of respect for the ordinary voter’? It is, in fact, an acknowledgment of their power. Isn’t that better than politicians who have lost Lok Sabha elections or who know they can never win one entering Parliament through the Rajya Sabha?

But I have far more serious issues with Gupta’s arguments. I admit that there are practical and logistical problems with too many independents in the fray. They reduce the chances of one single party getting a majority, something that is necessary for administrative stability and coherence in policy. But to term the rise of independents as undemocratic is carrying things a bit too far.

Why are such people are coming into politics, and as Independents? Gupta himself points to the growing anti-politician mood in the country. It has been there for several years now, but became more strident after the 26/11 attacks. Such tirades have always been met by taunts – especially from politicians – that it is easy to sit on the sidelines and criticise; why don’t these critics engage with the system and try to bring about change? But when they do just that, they get flak for being spoilers and for being undemocratic! It’s clearly a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t scenario.

Ok, so Gupta isn’t criticising their joining politics, but in their jumping in as Independents. He equates this to `challenging and wrecking’ the system from outside and then building a new one.

But why must people who want to join politics do so only a member of a political party? What if no party represents their ideology or world view? Should they stay out of politics, then? Will political parties give space to such people and listen to what they have to say?

In any case, what’s wrong with trying to build a new system? The point is that the existing system isn’t delivering on a lot of things. So clearly some change is needed. And that is unlikely to come from those within the current system – the political parties. Remember how Rajiv Gandhi tried to reform the Congress? And how miserably he failed? Change has to come from someone new. What is wrong if these new entrants appear `driven by a divine right to come and clean up our politics and governance’, as Gupta sneers? On a lighter note, there is a certain family which thinks it has a divine right to rule this country!

Let's look at Parliament as a political marketplace and apply the rules of the market to it. All markets function on the basis of competition and delivering value to the consumer. Different producers of a product package and price it differently to compete. But market distortions take place. Price cartels are formed and the producers gang up against the consumer, who then has no choice but to continue buying what is on offer.

What we are seeing in Parliament today is a market distortion, really. Existing parties have formed a cartel. Their products (their ideologies) may be different, but the kind of politics they indulge in is all the same. Just like commercial cartels gang up on pricing or other unfair trade practices, so do political parties display a rare unanimity on a range of issues that further their interests alone – hiking salaries of MPs, blocking moves to bar criminals from contesting elections, to name just two – even as they fight bitterly over measures that will further the welfare of the people.

In the market, cartels can be dealt with in two ways. One, government intervention or regulation, which doesn’t always work because crony capitalism tends to kick in. Two, new players in the market, who tap into the dissatisfaction of the consumers and offer them a better, or a more reasonably priced, product. This is a more effective way but will work only if there are no entry barriers.

Forcing people to join politics only as members of political parties is like putting entry barriers to challengers to the current brand of politics. It will mean allowing the existing cartels to continue unchallenged. That doesn’t seem very democratic to me.

I concede that a few Sanyals and Gopinaths may not be very successful. In fact they may be miserable failures. People don’t identify with them, don’t understand what they stand for. But that doesn’t matter. Initially all new players start small, face problems of acceptability and make losses. But they persevere and one day they challenge the incumbents and force them to change. The Indian marketplace is full of such examples. At least these Independents are giving some choice to people who don’t want to vote for the same tired lot of incumbent parties.

Gupta is apprehensive that even 10 per cent of independents could lead to sheer anarchy. I feel that is exaggerated, but even if one grants that, maybe we need some kind of churning in the near term from which a better system may evolve.

That said, this market parable should be understood by the Independents as well. If they seriously want to change the system, they should not disappear after losing one election. Instead, they should continue to engage in political activity in some form and contest elections. At least Sanyal and Gopinath, hailing as they do from the world of business, should know that success is always a long haul.

If they don’t hang on, put up with the grind, then they will prove Gupta right. And we will continue to suffer the current system.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Mayawati and the Middle Class

I am getting a bit tired of all criticism of the idea of Mayawati as Prime Minister being attributed to urban English-speaking middle class snobbery and a class prejudice. I have seen several commentators take this line in recent months, the latest being Suryakant Waghmore in today's Indian Express.

I am quoting from his article (to which I have provided a link) only because I have it in front of me, but the points that he makes have been made by several others.

First he says "while the English speaking middle class largely opposes Mayawati because of her caste, they do not express this by hurling caste abuses. They try to respond (not react) through English politeness and thus create a new English speaking middle class caste-culture.

"This, surely, runs contrary to a truly liberal attitude that would have celebrated Mayawati's great success and recognised what she has done as a single Dalit woman without any family legacy, in a highly patriarchal and hostile environment."

Now this is patently ridiculous. I have a sneaking admiration for Mayawati for where she has taken the BSP. I am sure that she could not have done this if it were not for Kanshi Ram's patronage, but I concede that she could have wasted that patronage but did not. I fully agree with Waghmore that "Mayawati and BSP's growth represents the deepening of democracy in India."

But look beyond that. What else is Mayawati known for? Personal aggrandisement and corruption. Has she done anything for Dalits or for the state in each of her tenures? Or even the current tenure, when the BSP has a complete majority? Apart from building statues and monstrous memorials, that is? Waghmore comments on English speaking middle class obsession with her statues. But why shouldn't that be subject to criticism? Is that a measure of development of the state or the uplift of Dalits? When, in 2007, Mayawati came to power on the basis of a new social coalition, eschewing the upper caste hatred that had marked the BSP's politics till then, many expected that this would be a sobering influence on her and that she would behave in a more responsible way, focussing on administration and good governance. Two years on, can anyone testify that she has done that? She appeared to be making some right moves in the beginning, especially on the economic front. But she quickly backtracked. The counter argument is that the Mulayam Singh was equally bad. Sure, but the thought of Mulayam Singh as Prime Minister will also frighten a lot of people. Sure no government has ever done anything for Dalit uplift. But does that mean Mayawati should not be criticised for doing nothing for the group she claims to work for?

Arguments like Waghmore's precludes the possibility of the urban middle class reacting to issues like corruption and personal aggrandisement. Despite my cynicism about its apathy, I think this is an unfair charge. The middle class was quite accepting of a Dalit as president and now as Chief Justice of India. If it was reacting purely on the basis of prejudice, then there would have been equally sharp reactions to these appointments.

I am an English speaking urban middle class Iyengar Brahmin. I am petrified at the thought of Mayawati as Prime Minister. But I am equally petrified at the thought of J Jayalalitha (who is not a Dalit but an English speaking urban middle class Iyengar Brahmin) becoming Prime Minister. Because Jayalalitha's regimes have also been marked by rampant corruption and a highly personalised style of functioning. Just like Mayawati.

I am petrified at the thought of Lalu Yadav becoming Prime Minister. Not because he is a Yadav or because of his rustic ways, but because of the way he ruined Bihar. I am more comfortable with the idea of Nitish Kumar as Prime Minister, even though he is a Kurmi and though he is an engineer by education, he is not an English speaking urban middle class person. I am petrified of Ram Vilas Paswan becoming Prime Minister one day not because he is a Dalit but because of stories about his corrupt ways. But I am also petrified of Kamal Nath, an English-speaking urban middle class person, becoming Prime Minister (never mind that he probably doesn't have those ambitions) again because of his reputation for corruption.

Behind such insinuations of the kind Waghmore makes is the belief that Mayawati should not be opposed or criticised just because she is a Dalit. This is carrying the politics of victimhood a bit too far.

Candles Aren't Enough

When, a month or so after the 26/11 attacks, I had written my post, After the Candles, some friends told me I was being cynical. I had criticised the swish set of Mumbai for their meaningless candlelight vigils, spewing venom at politicians and `the system’, calling for tax boycotts and use of Rule 49 O of the Conduct of Elections Rules, which allows one to register presence at the polling booth and say that one is not exercising the right to vote. I had said these people need to go beyond lighting candles, that the system is made up of individuals and each one of us needs to change for the system to change.
But the voting turnout in the third phase of elections, has shown that, finally, all the ranting on Facebook and on television channels was just that - idle ranting. Voter turnout in South Mumbai (the hub of all the protests) was a mere 43.33 per cent, less than the 44.22 per cent turnout in 2004.
I had written a feature for The Telegraph on 4 January chronicling individual efforts to bring about change and had spoken to some Bombay-ites who were attempting this. One was Owen Roncon, an entrepreneur but better known as Priya Dutt’s husband. He was working to promote active citizenship and said confidently: "Things are going to happen." Maybe I should go back to him and ask what happened.
Another veteran social activist - Samuel Paul of the Bangalore-based Public Affairs Centre – had sounded a note of caution: "This will not be easy to sustain. All this is more a reaction to a crisis than a lasting shift to a higher plane or a mass movement." How right he was.
This is not the first time I have been accused of being cynical about the middle class. In April 2006, I had written an article, Middle Class Angst, in DNA, after candlelight vigils in Delhi and Lucknow and sms protests. This was seen as THE definitive sign of middle class awakening and that this section was shaking off its apathy. I had questioned this view and said in that article, “It's so much easier to light candles and send outraged SMSs. That's a quick salve for our collective guilty conscience.”
That feeling has only got reinforced since then. I am particularly impatient with all this candle lighting business. It has become a meaningless fad. Someone gets murdered and if the case is not solved within two days, there’s a candlelight vigil, with posters demanding justice for the victim. The merits or the difficulty of the case don’t seem to matter. The candlelight vigil worked in the Jessica Lal case because the issue was so outrageous – the murderers had been acquitted by the court after the case dragged on for years because the police botched up on the investigations. But now we have candlelight vigils at the drop of a hat.
But ask these very people to cooperate with the police in solving crimes and they’ll immediately back off. Ask them to not turn away when they see something wrong being done – or worse, not do wrong themselves – and they’ll ignore you.
The middle class is not capable of ushering in any lasting change. That requires an effort that will make our lives a little less comfortable, as I explained in Middle Class Angst, to which I am providing a link. Heck, they’ll have time for nightlong vigils but they can’t go out and stand in a line for an hour or so to vote. This is the middle class awakening that we are all applauding?
Another Bombay-ite I spoke to for the article in The Telegraph was Vishal Dadlani, the singer (of the Vishal-Shekhar duo) who filed a petition against the media coverage of the 26/11 attacks. He said: "It's no longer about sitting in drawing rooms and criticising the state of affairs. Each individual needs to stand up and say I will do one small thing to change things."
Forget it Vishal, just forget it.