Saturday, May 23, 2009
Three myths and an election
Kanchan Gupta / Comment
This year’s general election will be remembered for three myths that determined its amazing outcome, catapulting the Congress to an awesome 206 seats and reducing the BJP’s tally to a paltry 116. The first is about the BJP ‘failing’ to break free of its ‘Hindutva agenda’ and coming up with proposals that would appeal to the masses and be in tune with the aspirations of India’s young. This is entirely incorrect. None of the BJP leaders who campaigned across the length and breadth of the country talked about those issues which are identified with what is crudely referred to as the party’s ‘Hindutva agenda’. I don’t recall any leader promising to abrogate Article 370, introduce a Uniform Civil Code and build a ‘grand temple’ dedicated to Sri Ram in Ayodhya. So how did this perception gain ground? The answer to this question lies in the manner in which the media, especially 24x7 news channels, portrayed the thrust of the BJP’s election campaign, wilfully misleading readers and viewers by perpetuating falsehoods in the most brazen manner, beginning with the party’s election manifesto.
Till the day of its release, only the top leaders of the BJP (you can count them on your fingertips) were privy to the contents of the manifesto. To prevent motivated leaks, the manifesto was printed the night before it was released. Yet, for nearly a fortnight before that, newspapers and news channels ran jaundiced stories about how the manifesto would focus on the BJP’s ‘core Hindutva issues’, how the Ram temple would figure prominently in it, how it was meant to revive the ‘Hindu card’, and how all this had caused a rift in the party! I happened to run into one of the peddlers of this fiction a couple of days before the manifesto was released. How do you know all this, I asked him. “Someone who is involved with drafting the manifesto has told me,” he replied haughtily. Really? The poor, pathetic sod and his feckless editor obviously had no clue about who was drafting the manifesto, what were its contents, and yet they manufactured and published stories which they knew were patent lies. I should know because I drafted the manifesto.
And when the manifesto was released, journalists didn’t even bother to read the 48-page document. Instead, they picked up three lines on page 47, which said, “The BJP will explore all possibilities, including negotiations and judicial proceedings, to facilitate the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya,” to put out stories on how the party had returned its “old hardline Hindutva”. During prime time news that evening, anchors aggressively confronted BJP spokespersons with taunting questions like, “So, the BJP, bereft of any issue, has fallen back on Ayodhya? It’s communal politics once again?” They grinned as the party’s representatives, ill-prepared and inarticulate, mumbled inanities. A news service that prides itself on being ‘different’ ran a story that was all about the BJP’s previous manifestoes. Others followed suit. And that was it.
The manifesto talked about the economy, foreign policy, strategic affairs, climate change, education, agriculture, science and technology, gender equality, minority welfare. But all that was overlooked because for media those three lines on Page 47 were of overwhelming importance. Tragically, since media chose to ignore the substantive portions of the manifesto, which would have found a resonance with ‘young India’ had they been publicised, those leading the party’s election campaign also abandoned their own governance agenda. Instead, they talked about frivolous issues far removed from popular concerns — for example, setting up cyber cafés in impoverished villages.
And thus was the perception created that the BJP cares only about building a temple in Ayodhya and nothing else. The power of perception over reality was demonstrated when during a television debate actress Nandita Das, asked by a feisty member of the audience what exactly had Mr Varun Gandhi said in Pilibhit to merit her censure, stuttered and stammered, bit her lips, looked at her nails, tossed her head defiantly and said, “You know all those awful things he has said...” or words to that effect. Where did she read or hear about those ‘awful things’? “It’s all over the place... on TV, in newspapers. Look, we all know what he has said.” End of debate. Clearly she didn’t know what Mr Varun Gandhi had said, nor did those in media who painted him as a monster and thus sought to hobble the BJP.
The second myth that did the BJP in is the so-called ‘consciousness’ of India’s middle class whose concern about real life issues like terrorism, inflation, job loss, credit crunch and corruption, vocally articulated by those who claim to represent ‘civil society’, has turned out to be totally bogus. Nothing else explains why the middle class should have voted for the Congress and thus endorsed its poor record of governance over the past five years. We can only surmise from the voting preference of the middle class that people who are educated, well-informed, and alert to what’s happening around them, are least bothered about corruption in high places, the relentless loot of public money, the sagging physical infrastructure, the dire straits into which the previous Government has led the national economy, the repeated terrorist attacks and India’s diminishing stature. Indeed, middle class ‘morality’ and ‘consciousness’ have turned out to be figments of our collective imagination; the next time you hear somebody waxing eloquent on how Transparency International has rated India as one of the most corrupt nations in the world, or how our country has become the favourite destination of terrorists, kick that person in the face. There is no percentage in being polite.
The third myth is about ‘good governance’ fetching votes and electoral victory. Had this been true, the BJP’s tally in Gujarat would have been much higher than 15 and Mr Naveen Patnaik’s BJD would not have swept the polls in Orissa. It would be gross exaggeration to suggest that the BJD Government has delivered on its promises or turned Orissa into a wonderland of rapid development and galloping progress. India’s single largest FDI, which was to have come by way of Posco’s steel plant, remains on paper. There has been no perceptible decline in poverty in Orissa. Anybody in Bhubaneswar will tell you about rampant corruption in the bureaucracy and how BJD Ministers had their snouts in the trough. Yes, Mr Patnaik’s image remains untarnished, but so does Mr BC Khanduri’s, yet the BJP lost all five seats in Uttarakhand. If quality of governance was really a criterion in deciding the people’s choice, the BSP’s vote share would not have increased in Uttar Pradesh, taking it way ahead of others. That this did not translate into seats is because of the quirks of the first-past-the-post system.
Yes, the Congress has won a stupendous victory. But for all the wrong reasons.
[Reader response to this comment as it appeared in last Sunday's Pioneer has been overwhelming.]