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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 8, February 15, 2014

Unscrambling the Electoral Discourse

Monday 17 February 2014, by Uttam Sen

We, among the aam aadmi and the middle classes, have habitually seethed over the daily pinpricks that immiserate us. Yet at the defining moment we are caught in two minds. We are watching the AAP and its activist Ministers in Delhi from afar, both with alarm and reassurance. We are alarmed at the slapping around shown on television, particularly when spiced with comment that mobocracy is taking over. We are, however, reassured that barring aberrations a turnaround will rein in prices and provide basic services for the common man. The aam admi’s overall deficiency in not belonging to a place of favour or advantage will probably remain unchanged (the alternative to which would make him his bête noire, the khaas aadmi).

Cautious political commentators have sportingly commiserated with the common man squeezing out as much as possible from the situation. He has been enlightened on similar events, notably in France in the fifties. He has also been treated to derision of the party as rough and raw, though some analogies virtually amounted to own-goals. For example, the approximation of the AAP’s common man frame of reference to pre-Second World War European Fascist techniques left unnoticed the fact of Benito Mussolini exploiting popular sentiment to set the ruling classes off against the monarchy and seizing power for himself. The AAP is less enamoured with the classes exerting power and authority than others. The catch is that,with a few modifications, the cap fits several political dramatis personae to a nicety. Perhaps the rushed overtones of the AAP spokespersons are stimulating the timeworn flair of rhetoric in more seasoned campaigners, challenged by the wonder of a newcomer capturing the imagination of the aam aadmi and kindred spirits as never before.

Kejriwal’s mobile “referendum” on whether he should form a government or not also drew the Nazi parallel of going to the people. The Nazis had tried to push a beaten German people into rallying against war reparations, but had failed, doubtlessly to the chagrin of German industry whose challenge to Anglo-Saxon supremacy is today accepted historical tender. The grapevine has it that sections of the corporate sector are coming around to the AAP. But there is nothing to suggest that they have been the moving spirits behind any of the AAP’s protestations. They might in fact drift away if they perceive the AAP’s populism to be too strong and genuine for their taste, particularly if they are overly identified as the privileged elite standing in the way of the realisation of people’s rights. Mukesh Ambani has been at the receiving end of India Against Corruption’s charges, and does not seem to be the last. On the other hand, the AAP’s mercurial style of seizing the day by abandoning MGNREGA or food security could hearten them.

But the rest of the reformist tendency is spreading. The Congress Vice-President is asking much the same questions (as Kejriwal did in print) in Opposition-run States. Why is the common man being denied schools/teachers/blackboards or hospitals/doctors? Why is government cheating him of the money he pays in taxes by siphoning it off to the mining mafia? The positioning of his propositions could raise eyebrows but the recognition of the building blocks of governance appears to be emerging in inadvertent consensus.

Given the down-to-earth wisdom the electorate is routinely credited with, can this new-found consciousness of the ordinary person standing up for his rights reach the polling booth? Candidates are waging war against each other in their election rallies. But no one leaves out governance at the end, even though approaches vary, in what remains of ideological differentiation between Right and Left. The former talks in meta narrative terms, with comprehensive explanations of national unity, security, governance and even business, but rarely addresses the common man. Those considered to be to the Left of that position do. Will tomorrow’s voters discern the distinction between paying homage to the abstract ideal of public wellbeing and the statement of more tangible, denominated procedures for fulfilling benchmarks of health, housing, education, income and so on?

How does big investment, the recurring badge of economic headway, translate into their welfare if and when the trade-off between remitting collective land and resources and master development does not correspond propor-tionately, or at all, to the employment and income generated by the process; is industry accountable for the depletion (in natural resources) that future generations will suffer, particularly in as irreplaceable a source as water (with the water table sinking precipitately)? Business and industry can be responsible and conscientious. Both at home and abroad there is compelling evidence that the devil-take-the-hindmost attitude, particularly the exploitation of finite natural resources, is fraught with long-term danger, even for industry. But the absence of these considerations in the public discourse of some committed leaders is unsettling. The moment for open accountability and the long-term perspective has perhaps still not yet come, but we could be getting there.

Some might want to widen the terms of reference. The AAP has in mind the local administration at the moment, but even in the event of a national presence its focus will be more on decentrali-sation than national security, defence, external affairs etc. But some of those spheres and potential out-of-the-box remedies for the whole could require a touch of the hypothetical and the abstract. For instance, it is suppositional and uncertain that a global precedent will necessarily apply, but a Republican American President succeeded in striking a rapprochement with China precisely because his political conservatism squelched qualms on national security. A pathfinding understanding with Pakistan can lead to a host of adjustments on formal and informal business and trade that have bedevilled bilateral relations to the extent of creating third country off-shore havens that have become the norm. This is not to mention the strain on natural resources, including water.

Not only would normalisation lead to immense gains for the sons of the soil but it would make a dent in the highly inter-related problems of internal security. If receding into the religio-communal shell can be seen as a crisis of tangled livelihood entitlements that needs sorting out, the demon can be exorcised, or at least diminished to manageable proportions. Like the erstwhile communist-baiter, President Nixon, a much-maligned captain of the saffron-brigade could pull it off for his people. This is just to say that our malaises are multi-dimensional and that pigeon-holing an arguably secondary factor as the critical point is not always a curative response. An idea without a physical presence is not necessarily superfluous and certainly less harmful and volatile than the immediately real or tangible. To assume a national political mantle one has to tread gently, tackle complexity and avoid pitfalls, but the AAP does not always claim to be doing so.

Three political figures represent most vividly the current voter profile. Handy orthodoxy and ambition north of the Vindhyas (mostly to the west) is mirrored in the ubiquitous visage of a self-made, middle-aged, and almost mesmeric individual. His aegis is a powerful majoritarian party. A younger technocratic arriviste seeks to merge rationalism in a somewhat atavistic idiom with the ends of contemporary fulfilment. He is similarly driven. His medium is a fledgling outfit of fellow-travellers. Their counterpoint is the unassuming, young political patrician with English-speaking, new technology acolytes on every side. Apart from the traditional base in the national Capital and the establishment, he enjoys the reach of a countrywide party organisation. The places of origin of all three are outside southern and eastern precincts. Nature abhors a vacuum and the space is likely to be filled up, or at least dominated, by the regional satraps.

In a competitive environment one does not give any quarter to the next. The others, including the Left and regional parties, are pretty much in the fray with influence when not with numbers. There are many ways of sizing up, but one critical detail could unscramble the mélange. The central theme could well be the maverick endeavour to meet the two goals the world wants India to achieve. Firstly, political reform that puts the countless army of the excluded in the picture, and, secondly, reversion to an authentic rational-legal authority with which to do so.

Clearing the political cobwebs (in the AAP’s perception it is mostly corruption), making law and government people-oriented and then providing for them, underscores the narrative. Extreme manifestations of activism have been ungainly and will hopefully be remedied in more level playing fields. But the comfort is that for all the rivalry these changes will take place across political brand names. Common ground can be found in the departure from the coercive aura of personality-based control to a more impersonal, objective and logical arrangement. Both rectitude and proficiency would ensue. We can see the writing on the wall from our geopolitical neighbourhood.

But we do hear the cutting-edge statesman proactively eschewing the politics of caste, community, creed and lineage. The sobering thought is that the preservation of our inherited ideas, values and knowledge is reflected as much in political as in social action and that no-holds-barred antagonism can undermine the heritage avowedly being protected. There is no universally settled formula for modernisation but enlightened and legitimate institutions and practices can pass the test with popular sanction.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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