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Incumbents and anti-incumbency

The controversial anglophile Nirad C. Chodhury often wrote rather contemptuously of Indian culture as nothing more than an amalgam of foreign influences which, imported into India’s enervating soil, inevitably festered and decayed into inferior forms and manifestations. This thesis has, of course, been hotly and widely contested, and it is certainly not one that would easily be accepted by most Indians. In the sphere of our understanding and practice of democracy, however, there is abundant reason to discover a trajectory that mimics Chodhury’s thesis on culture. We have grafted the forms and processes of an electoral democracy from alien models and, over the decades, transferred onto India’s insalubrious soil, these have systematically declined to become things that bear little resemblance to the original, and reflect nothing of the ideas and ideologies that inspired the Founding Fathers great experiment on the threshold of Independence.

This is brought relentlessly home to us with each new election, and the current exercise is no exception. One thing that is abundantly clear is that no single political formation today represents anything by way of an identifiable agenda, and all campaigns rely increasingly on gimmicks and on the unsubstantial. Past elections have given a central and permanent place to criminals and the most unsavory elements in the country. The present election has brought the entertainment industry – in its widest conception – to the centrestage, and parties enlist actors, actresses, wrestlers, cricketers and sundry others from the celebrity circuit to shore up electioneering that is, otherwise, entirely devoid of interest for the electorate. Where celebrity is not exploited, dynasty prevails, and the present election must surely have more undeserving inheritors seeking privileged access to Parliament than ever before.

The sad truth is, most of these assorted opportunists will, in fact, succeed in their quest for a seat in Parliament, or an increasingly visible role in future political adventures. It matters little that those who have, in the past, been catapulted into the nation’s legislature from similar backgrounds, and on similar consideration, have contributed little, if anything, to the proceedings of that august body, or to the general welfare of the nation. Absent the basic ingredients of policies and governance, political parties today can do little more than reduce the democratic process to a grand tamasha.

Indian politicians today are in a state of total cerebral bankruptcy and, as the poet said, "intellectual disgrace stares from every face." And it stares at us more relentlessly than every before, as an unending procession of political ‘heavyweights’ settles into to what appears to be permanent residence on television. But the discourse is entirely trivial, devoid of content or significant concern for, even awareness of, critical national issues, and of the gravitas appropriate to political purpose. Politicians appear to have nothing of significance to say, and whatever they do say, they say badly.

The general population of flatterers and self-servers among the political classes has grown so greatly, moreover, that politicians have lost all grips over grassroots reality. No single leader relies on party cadres, even in the rare cases where these still exist. It is petty coteries that invent false realities that are the source of all ‘political intelligence’ – till the harsh realities of an election bring fruitless disillusionment. Unreliable though the recent exit polls may be, they have shocked the ruling coalition into the realization that India is somewhat larger than the little pools of light where it appears to be ‘shining’. The result has been a desperate last minute scramble to salvage the possibilities of a government, with a frantic scraping of the bottom of the ideological barrel for coalition partners.

The circumstances in the States are no different. Any casual visitor traveling through Andhra Pradesh with his eyes open over the past years, could have predicted Chandrababu Naidu’s fall. Naidu has been the Chief Minister, not of Andhra Pradesh, but of Hyderabad-Secunderabad. Yet, surrounded by toadies and an uncritical Press, he remained delusional to the end, believing that his achievement in a miniscule Information Technology sector could guarantee electoral success in a State where the countryside has been allowed to lapse into complete destitution over the past decade.

On the other hand we have leaders like Laloo Prasad Yadav, whose party does not even pretend to make an offer of governance or development to the people of Bihar, but whose manipulation of the lowest common denominators of social mobilization – caste and communal polarities – have guaranteed his repeated success. Worse still, parties with great pretensions to nationalism and noble political lineage have not only failed altogether to create a credible alternative to Bihar’s current anarchy, but have in fact been eager to forge the most unprincipled alliances with the party that has brought the State to its present condition as the epitome of the most abject misery and lawlessness.

There are already signs that the present election will produce regimes that can give little hope of efficiency or governance to the people of the country. Already, we are confronted with the saddening spectacle of desperate efforts to cobble together coalitions between ideologically incompatible, indeed, irreducible, parties in a naked and unprincipled quest for power in the States and at the Centre. Such a process cannot establish democratic governments in any meaningful sense of the term; it can, at best, install a new kleptocracy to replace the old. Unfortunately, India’s political leadership appears entirely uneducable. Instead of accepting the basic reality that the people are asking for alternatives and for effective governance, it has invented the thesis that the present age is an ‘age of coalitions’, and that the present and unprincipled alliances somehow represent the diversity of the ‘aspirations of the people’. No party or political formation, consequently, is ‘untouchable’. This is an entirely dishonest line of reasoning and serves no interests other than those of a power-hungry and corrupt political elite.

All this does not augur well for Indian democracy, or for India’s future. The present elections will install a new coalition at the Centre, and new governments in some of the States, most of which, like the majority of recent regimes, will prove to be non-performers, and will fail to come to grips with the basic problems that confront the nation. The new incumbents – whatever their structure and constitution – will start with heady propaganda about the grand transformations they plan for the nation; but will fail to effectively implement most of what they promise. Nevertheless, they will project a false propaganda of fictional achievements, which they will eventually begin to believe themselves. Till the acid test of the next election brings transient disillusionment.

(Published in The Pioneer, May 1, 2004)





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