Expect nothing, live frugally on surprise.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008: Positive Signs in Indian politics

Indian politics can be said to have taken a giant step forward in 2008 by showing the politicians that their familiar exploitation of caste, religion and region will no longer yield dividends. It wasn't only that the high death toll in the terror attack on Mumbai was a devastating experience for the Indian public. The trauma caused by the sight of the carnage and the manner in which the city was held hostage by the killers was enhanced by a feeling of helplessness. Yet, nothing showed the maturity of the people more than the fact that in the midst of the unfolding of the horrendous events, elections to the Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Jammu and Kashmir assemblies were held with high turnouts. Particularly gratifying was the rejection by the Kashmiri voters of the separatists' call for a poll boycott. The elections could have taken place on such a scale during a grievous tragedy only in India, where an inborn resilience explains this phenomenon of the routine business of democracy in the midst of an insensate criminal act.

Even more astonishing was that the massacre had virtually no impact on the electoral outcome. The terrorist plot of derailing Indian democracy and economy was negated right at the start. The electorate also turned a blind eye to all the cynical posturing of the politicians and voted according to its own assessment of a government's performance.

As a result, leaders who had focused on development had little difficulty in sailing through irrespective of the party to which they belonged. Thus, Delhi's Sheila Dikshit of the Congress, and the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Raman Singh of Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh won easily because they had eschewed divisive politics and laid emphasis on welfare and infrastructure.

If this message sinks in and the voters continue to reject the scare-mongers and false prophets, then the year will be remembered for initiating a sea change in the much-abused system.

The BJP's run of successes with its electoral victories in Gujarat, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Karnataka seemed to have ended in December with its defeats in Delhi and Rajasthan. But its main worry will be the loss of its terror card, which it routinely used to pillory the Congress for being allegedly soft on terror because of its policy of "minority appeasement", the BJP's favorite phrase.

In view of the earlier devaluation of the Ram temple card, the BJP now has no emotive plank for its campaigns. Its prime ministerial candidate, L.K. Advani, will have reasons to worry, therefore, as to whether his life's ambition can be fulfilled. Undoubtedly, this setback for its main rival gives the Congress a chance to retrieve some of the lost ground. It can look forward with more confidence to next year's general election.

In hindsight, the clinching of the India-US nuclear deal was the first major achievement of the Manmohan Singh government. The deal led to the communists withdrawing support from the government. But the subsequent global financial crisis prevented the government from pursuing economic reforms with greater vigor.

The government's survival during the vote of confidence on the deal in parliament stunned the BJP and was the first sign for it that the political wind might have turned against it.

It also poured cold water on Mayawati's ambition to become prime minister with the Left's, and perhaps also the BJP's, support. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader had been projecting herself for the top job since her rainbow coalition of Dalits and Brahmins swept to power in Uttar Pradesh.

The fallout of her success was that her main adversary in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party, mended its fences with the Congress, enabling the latter to survive the floor test in parliament. But the Congress' tie-up with the Samajwadi Party caused a rupture between the latter and the Left, persuading the comrades to court the mercurial Mayawati. Since then, the comrades have reached an understanding with another whimsical politician, former chief minister Jayalalitha of Tamil Nadu.

But the communists' main concern during the year related to their problems in West Bengal. While the frequently violent agitations conducted by Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee led to the scuttling of a proposed chemical complex in Nandigram, it was the departure of the Tatas from Singur - where they intended to set up their small cars factory - which dealt a body blow to the Left Front government of Buddhadev Bhattacharjee.

Given its problems, the chances are that the Left will have a smaller presence in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, after the general election. The BJP, too, will be worried about its prospects because, apart from anything else, its reputation has taken a hit from the arson attacks on churches by saffron mobs in Orissa, which has strained its ties with its ally, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), in the state. The sectarianism of a breakaway group of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, which targeted north Indians, can also affect the cohesion of the saffron brotherhood of Hindu nationalist parties in the state.

For the Congress, the year is ending on a slightly more hopeful note compared to the period when suicides by distressed farmers, for whom the government sanctioned a Rs.60,000-crore loan waiver, and runaway inflation had given it much cause for concern.


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