Monday, November 21, 2005

Waves That Swept Elections

The world over, in healthy democracies, general elections usually hold an element of surprise. You never really know who’s going to win till the results are out.

No American, for example, can tell you at the moment whether George Bush is going to win a second term or whether he will be taken to task by his people for attacking Iraq. Similarly, no Briton can tell you for sure if Tony Blair is going to win a third term or whether the Tories will return from the political wilderness.

But in India, the world’s largest democracy, people usually know months before the elections who the next Prime Minister will be. Today, put the question to anyone and the answer — unless the person happens to be a Gandhi family loyalist or a communist cardholder — is likely to be: Atal Behari Vajpayee. Before the 1999 elections, the answer was the same, Vajpayee. And it turned out to be correct. Before the 1989 elections, the answer was V P Singh. It too turned out to be correct. Before the 1984 elections, the answer was Rajiv Gandhi. It turned out to be correct as well. How do the voters manage to get it right?

It’s simple logic. Before every election the country witnesses a ‘wave’, from which emerges a knight in the shining armour who promises to rescue the country from all ills and evils, and the people vote for him (or her). But the building up of this wave is not based on any logic. In fact, it is based on something purely illogical — emotion. And in India, emotions are easier to whip up than lassi. You only need to give them people a slogan, and they’ll build a wave for you. That’s how most elections have been won in this country since 1971.

Garibi Hatao

Jawaharlal Nehru did not need any slogan or wave to stay in power. The spirit of the freedom struggle, of which he was a leading light, kept him going till he died in 1964. His successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, did coin a slogan in the wake of the 1965 Indo-Pak war, Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan (Victory to the soldier, victory to the peasant). But the slogan, which became hugely popular and inspired actor Manoj Kumar into making patriotic films such as Upkaar, never made its way from the battlefield to the election arena. It died with Shastri in Tashkent, where the then USSR was brokering peace between India and Pakistan in 1966.

After his death, Congress heavyweights of the time made Indira Gandhi the Prime Minister, thinking they could remote-control her. It was under her that the Congress went to elections in 1967 and suffered its first major setback: The party’s tally in Lok Sabha slipped from 361 to 283, with the Opposition joining hands for the first time. Then in 1969, the Congress split. That was when the Indira Gandhi we know was born.

On the eve of the 1971 elections, she gave a simple, two-word slogan, Garibi Hatao (Remove Poverty), claiming that she had a time-bound scientific plan for abolishing poverty. The slogan captured the nation’s imagination and Mrs Gandhi’s Congress-I swept the polls, winning 342 seats in the Lok Sabha. The 1971 Indo-Pak war, where India was supporting the liberation of Bangladesh in the face of international opposition, boosted her popularity like never before. But that began to dip soon after.

The country experienced a severe drought in 1971 and 1972 and the price of food rose 20 percent by early 1973. The decision by the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to quadruple oil prices in 1973-74 also led to inflation and increased unemployment. Garibi Hatao remained only a slogan. Finally, Jayaprakash Narayan, once seen as the successor to Nehru but who had renounced politics to join the Sarvodaya movement, came out of retirement to lead a sustained political campaign against Mrs Gandhi. The entire Opposition, sinking ideological differences, joined him. In June 1975, Mrs Gandhi imposed Emergency and put the Opposition leaders behind bars. Democracy was in danger.

Indira Hatao

During the 19-month Emergency, India again saw the building up of a wave. The wave didn’t throw up any particular hero, but was the expression of a collective national sentiment directed against a single villain: Mrs Gandhi. Indira Hatao, Desh Bachao (Remove Indira and save the nation) — that was the slogan. In due course several heroes emerged out of jails to take charge of the nation, much to the relief of the people whose civil rights were suspended during the Emergency. But then too many heroes, like too many cooks, can spoil the show.
Rather than governance, the Janata Party leaders concentrated their energies on fighting each other. Prices spiralled. Onions sold at Rs 10 per kg. Mrs Gandhi made that an election issue and returned in 1980 with a thumping majority.

The assassination

Pictures of Indira Gandhi’s body lying in state, the live coverage of her funeral, footage of a handsome Rajiv Gandhi grimly performing her last rites — they were mere visuals, but more evocative than any slogan. Even those who hated the lady were charmed by the innocent looks of her son. Their hearts bled for him. Their sympathy helped Rajiv make history: The Congress won 415 seats in the Lok Sabha. A nation that was surviving on the fading glow of freedom struggle was impressed when he promised to take them to the 21st century. He brought computers to dusty government offices and gave weekends off to the babus. India was in the hands of the new generation.

Bofors: Gali, gali mein shor hai...
Sometime in 1988, All India Radio in Patna hosted a live programme for children. The participating children were asked to tell jokes and when a little girl’s turn came, she chirped: “Gali gali mein shor hai, Rajiv Gandhi chor hai!” (In every street they are saying Rajiv Gandhi is a thief!). The station director lost his job. The child, though innocently, was only voicing the opinion of the public, which was now convinced that Rajiv Gandhi was thoroughly corrupt, having “eaten” Bofors money. The media ridiculed his lengthy speeches and his favourite phrases “Humen dekhna hai” and “Hum dekhenge” (both meaning, We will see). ‘Rajiv Gandhi jokes’ began doing the rounds and housewives gossiped that once he lost the elections — they were sure he would — he would flee to Italy. They were sure about his defeat because a new hero had appeared on the horizon — V P Singh, the Mr Clean of Indian politics. The same housewives were glued to their TV sets when in November 1989, Singh addressed the nation, having won the elections on the Bofors wave. They believed every word he said because the country was suddenly witnessing an openness it had not seen before: Opposition leaders were finally shown on TV. The saviour had arrived.

Mandir wahin banayenge...

Bofors turned out to be an anti-climax. No names came out, no one was punished. Instead, V P Singh pulled out the Mandal Commission report (recommending reservation of 27 percent of seats for OBCs in government jobs) from cold storage and decided to implement it. The middle-class Indian, who fell for his so-called crusade against corruption, was enraged. Parents saw V P as the man who was out to ruin their children’s future. There was general disenchantment. That’s when the BJP, which had just seen a fresh surge in its popularity (its tally went up from two in 1984 to 80 in the 1989 elections), moved in. It gave the people a new cause — the construction of a Ram temple at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood.

Their argument was convincing: as it is no one offers namaaz in the mosque, so why not relocate it and build the temple there. After all, Lord Ram was born there and conqueror Babar had deliberately built the mosque over there. To mobilise public opinion for the cause, L K Advani began a rath yatra from Somnath and changed the course of India’s political history. Jai Shri Ram, Garv Se Kaho Hum Hindu Hain (Be proud to say you are a Hindu) and Mandir Wahin Banayenge (We will build the temple only there) became the new slogans of India. The Ram wave overnight transformed the BJP into the largest political party in the country.

India Shining

The Ram wave might have pushed the BJP close to power, but after the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992, the issue had lost its appeal and the party was not getting anywhere. It had become a political untouchable. That’s when it projected Atal Behari Vajpayee, a moderate, a poet, as the Prime Minister and went about winning allies. And when power was within striking distance, it set aside Ram and won over even more allies. Today, Vajpayee is completing his full term in office — an achievement in itself because no non-Congress Prime Minister has done so before — and is looking forward to a second term. His confidence is understandable.

India, after all, is shining and we are feeling good. At least we are being made to feel that our countrymen are feeling good. Perhaps that is why the slogan is short and sweet and in English, so that the global Indian understands it. Now there are two things about the India Shining slogan. One, unlike the previous slogans, it is not negative. It does not attack anyone, nor does it seek to arouse passions. Two, it seems to be coined by a seasoned economist rather than a street-smart politician. So will the voters — the emotional lot that they are — find it inspiring enough to keep Vajpayee in power, or will they refuse the buy the India Shining theory, rubbishing it as an exaggeration of a government’s achievements? Emotions and economics, after all, rarely mix. Do they?

February 2004


Blogger Atulesh said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Atulesh said...

With due respect Vajpayee ji could not form a government and we got a SURPRISE Manmohan ji ....

11:09 AM  

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