With general elections finally a glimmer on the calendar, the issues that will shape the outcome are beginning to emerge from the chrysalis of hope, fear, disappointment, anger, betrayal that gives birth to a new electorate. Only two general elections have been similar, those of 1952 and 1957, because faith in Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress remained unshaken for a decade after freedom. Since then, every election has been unique. Results have shifted and, occasionally, somersaulted because both subject and object have changed. The elections of 2004 were the most federal in history; the sum of each state added up to a new plurality at the Centre. There were no alliances between national parties; all politics was, to repeat an old adage, local, and intensely so. It is forgotten that the four-year-long UPA government was a post-election phenomenon. That is perhaps the only fact that could be replicated; the next government will also be a post-election phenomenon. The UPA government collapsed in July; the UPA's present majority has been concocted by cash-and-carry methods in a dubious bazaar. People like Shibu Soren are still hanging around with promissory notes in their clutch. That is why the government is unwilling to risk more than one session of Parliament before an election, and has protected itself by calling the next sitting an extension of the July session. This bars the opposition from asking for a no-confidence vote. The elections of 2009 will witness the maturity of a phenomenon that has been lurking at the edges: "intra-national federalism". The elections will also, if I may be brave enough to make the forecast, witness the death of a perennial cliché. So far, political identity has been largely expressed within the linguistic matrix. Larger identities have had to operate within the confines of the existing states. But, in 2009, three trans-national demographic groups will influence results in up to 200 or more seats: Dalits, Muslims and Naxalites. Obviously, there is a great deal of overlap since all three political communities co-exist in many of these seats. Nor am I suggesting that their vote will be universally uniform: if that were so, they would be decisive in at least a hundred more constituencies. All three are familiar components of the electoral mix, with the Naxalite impact on the ballot taking, to use a Maoist phrase, a great leap forward in Andhra, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh in 2004. Since 2004 each has found a further reason for a pan-federal expression of their vote. Dalits have found a national leader they can identify with in Mayawati. This did not come about because she became chief minister; that has happened before. It came about because Mayawati won a simple majority in a state where a majority has been elusive since the Congress was knocked out of shape in 1989. She proved that the Dalit vote could lead an alliance to victory in the country's largest electoral base, leading to unprecedented empowerment. This will see a significant rise in her party's appeal among Dalits across the country.
Naxalites and Muslims have found a new pan-Indian cause in their opposition to the strategic alliance with the United States that has been forged by Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. The Naxalite slogan is "anti-imperialism". The broader Left is also convinced that Dr Singh and Mrs Gandhi have converted the Congress into an irredeemably rightist party. The combination of economic and foreign policy is a classic lock. Marxist MPs witnessed the Prime Minister's almost visceral contempt for the Left, when he accused them, during the nuclear debate, of treating him like a virtual "bonded slave" for four years. Muslim anger is directed against George Bush, who has spent most of his time in office waging war against some form of "Islam", "Islamism" or "Islamo-fascism" since waging war in the name of oil has become politically incorrect even among American Republicans. Even when his reasons are understandable, as in the search for the Taliban on Pakistani soil, his track record skewers the perception of his intentions. For entirely different reasons, Ms Mayawati has also declared herself against the Indo-US strategic alliance. If the three constituencies find common cause on election day, they could cause havoc among conventional projections. It is not yet certain that they will do so, for the pace of the debate has not yet picked up. Government, doubtless, will seek to break up any consolidation through the multi-pronged, honeyed and moneyed art of persuasion. But the evolution of electoral tension as each partisan walks a taut rope to the polling booth could be dramatic. These three "intra-national" constituencies have another pan-federal cause, poverty. Poverty as an election issue might be called Gandhi's legacy. The Mahatma served the poor, his successors have only lip-served the poor. For six decades the Congress has been wiping the tear from the poor man's and poor woman's eye. Heaven knows how many khaddar handkerchiefs have been soaked, dried, laundered, thrown away, restocked - and those tears remain. In the last elections the "aam aadmi" was milked for every last drop; this time, he will be asking the questions. Muslims, in addition, now wear a mantle that was once exclusively Dalit: discrimination. Poverty fuelled by discrimination turns incendiary. The bitter joke among Muslims is that backward castes get jobs; Muslims get inquiry commissions. Nothing is done when the commissions finish their inquiry, whether it be about communal riots or economic disparity. The guilty named in the Sri Krishna report on the Mumbai riots of 1992-93 are still "untraceable" despite two continuous terms of Congress governance in Maharashtra. Justice Rajinder Sachar's report arrived with a bang and has disappeared with a whimper. It is possible that some last-minute pre-poll pro-Sachar noises could be made by the government, but that would probably be too little, too late. What will emerge from the chrysalis? Someone will hold a butterfly; someone will get a moth.
6 months ago