More than a tale of two personalities
NEW DELHI - In mature political systems, rival practitioners never need to let go of ordinary norms of civility, the common courtesies. The ceremony attending a peaceful transfer of power is an unwritten part of the game - the smooth choreography of the George W Bush-Barack Obama transition has any number of informal precedents in the Indian system. The oft-quoted example is that of the late Rajiv Gandhi, after a particularly nasty election campaign in 1989 that saw him smeared with the Bofors gun deal scandal, graciously escorting his successor V P Singh, the very man who had led the charge against him, to the high chair.
But this time, the strains on the system are showing. The country is in poll mode: Thursday is the first of five phases of parliamentary voting for India's 714 million voters for 543 seats in the Lower House of parliament, the Lok Sabha. Exactly one month later, the next prime minister for the next five years should be known.
At the end of what must have been the most personalized and acrimonious run-up to a general election, the two main claimants to that post - incumbent Manmohan Singh, 77, of the Congress party, and Lal Krishna Advani, 82, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) barely acknowledged each other as they came face-to-face this week at a formal function in the central hall of parliament.
The political grapevine in New Delhi was buzzing with talk of the sub-zero temperature between the two, how they avoided each other. Everyone else was surprised by the schoolboy petulance displayed by the two grey eminences - more so because it was an occasion to commemorate a national icon, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who is credited with authoring the constitution, the holy book of India's democracy that was adopted on November 26, 1949, two years after independence.
The stressful streetfighting seen on dusty campaign trails, where accusations are flung about with all the panache of low theater, is never carried back into the rarefied chambers of lawmaking. But here, not only could everyone smell the battle smoke inside the high-domed central hall, the two squabbling sides had barely left the venue that they made Ambedkar himself the fodder for the next round in their slugfest. Advani accused the Congress of sabotaging Ambedkar's election to the Lok Sabha, in 1952. The Congress hit back, saying Advani should first sack Arun Shourie, a high-profile party colleague, for calling Ambedkar "a British collaborator" in a book.
Why, on the eve of a national election, was everyone arguing about events fading away into the distance of half a century? There is both a general and a more proximate, urgent reason. For one, Ambedkar, a Dalit who rose from the ranks of the "untouchables" in the old Indian caste hierarchy to become the country's revered law-giver, is always a subject for high symbolism. And every party feels impelled to embrace him. This has become all the more acute since the political consolidation of the Dalit vote around an emergent political formation, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which uses Ambedkar as a cult figure.
The Dalits (the former untouchables/depressed classes) were earlier a natural ally of the Congress, largely owing to Mahatma Gandhi's strong work towards the community's social amelioration. Their moving away from the patronizing yoke of the Congress umbrella has been one of the main causes of the Grand Old Party's enfeeblement in recent decades. More significantly, their rallying together is a political phenomenon with pan-India potential, and is already threatening the political status quo.
Riding this crest is BSP supremo Mayawati, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh who goes by one name, which sends the largest component of 80 members to the Lok Sabha. Mayawati, who wears Ambedkar on her sleeve, also completes the triangle with Manmohan and Advani - she is the undeclared, potential prime ministerial candidate of what is known as the Third Front, a loose coalition of regional parties with the left acting as the pivot.
The sniping between the otherwise mild-mannered Manmohan and Advani, who revels in his role-playing of the aggressive Hindutva hardliner, goes back to what appears at first to be a superfluous element in this election: the concerted attempt by the BJP to pitch the battle of 2009 as a United States-style presidential election, where the personality, style and charisma of the rival claimants would seem to matter as much as the issues and policy projections.
It has by now become a frequently trotted-out cliche that this election is not about issues. There is no grand divide on a polarizing subject, no all-India wave of any sort - just a compendium of small, local factors. And despite internal security being seen to be under threat after the Mumbai terror attack of last November and the South Asia neighborhood being in ferment, there is no clear anti-incumbency feeling.
The present government is seen to have contained the Pakistan factor to a reasonable degree. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam/Sri Lanka problem has no spillover beyond the southern state of Tamil Nadu. And in Indian-administered Kashmir, just months after a huge voter turnout in the face of a separatist boycott call, a young separatist leader has for the first time decided to run for parliament. Sajjad Lone, the son of Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Lone, who was killed in 2002, rationalized the fact that he would have to sign on official documents as an Indian citizen saying it was only a "change in strategy, not ideology". Still, it is a major change for the positive.
It is in this situation that the BJP saw a clear advantage in pitching this as a battle of personality. The logic is: the cast-iron appeal of Advani, with his competent public oratory skills, could show up in favorable relief against the dour, professorial air of Manmohan. So they have been personally targeting Manmohan for being "the weakest prime minister ever", a mere cipher who is there only to execute the wishes of the real power behind the throne, the Italian-born Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi.
The constant goading and jibing has stung Manmohan to the quick and, to everyone's surprise, he has joined battle with uncharacteristic vigor and caustic wit. He has been giving it as good as he got, calling Advani "an iron man who melts" in the heat of crisis, referring specifically to the Kandahar hijack crisis of 1999 where the BJP's foreign minister Jaswant Singh escorted three A-list terrorists all the way to a Taliban haven in Afghanistan in exchange for the release of hostages. These included Maulana Masood Azhar, who went on to form the dreaded terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Omar Sheikh, now awaiting the gallows for masterminding the killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002.
Advani has lit into Manmohan in his usual vein, once calling him "nikamma (a colorful Hindi word for a good-for-nothing). Now Manmohan is turning the tables on him, saying Advani was "weeping in a corner" while the Babri Masjid (mosque) was being demolished by right-wing Hindu hoodlums in 1992, and "wringing his hands" as home minister while the bloody Gujarat riots of 2002 were raging.
This slugfest may have made the election a little more interesting for the news channels and bored urban class voters, but the very act of reducing the entire process of electing a government to a verbal sparring is actually directly related to a larger fact. Which is that, the national parties - the Congress, the BJP and the left bloc - are losing ground to a rash of regional parties confined to single states. This is why elections have been throwing up a fractured mandate which makes multi-party coalitions an inevitability in Indian politics, as much as it is in Japan and Italy.
The frequent call for a presidential-style, televised debate between Advani and Manmohan by the BJP - which the Congress rejected out of hand - is linked to an impulse that is actually shared by the two. This is a deep urge to restrict the Indian electoral contest to a bi-polar one, with two all-India coalitions helmed by the "national" parties. In this reading, the so-called Third Front is always seen as a threat, a harbinger of instability. And the sight of two men debating on television could be a comforting vision for the urban class that sees with some trepidation the coming to New Delhi of regional satraps with their own axes to grind and no stake in the "national" framework.
But whether the elections will actually bear out this wish is not immediately apparent. Both the Congress and the BJP are expected to end up in a range of 30 seats on either side of 150, nowhere close to the simple majority figure of 272. The other pole, the left parties, did extremely well by their own standards in the last elections (62 seats) but are expected to lose ground - which they hope to make up via their strategic alliances with regional parties.
The Congress, by taking the grandiose line that it will not go into national alliances, lost most of its regional allies, including crucial ones in the north Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The BJP, too, has lost some of its allies as regional parties jockeyed for advantage.
The first phase of elections (to 124 seats) is going to be especially crucial for the Congress. The two states where it is expected to do well - Kerala (20 seats) and half of Andhra Pradesh (22 out of its total 42) vote on Thursday. The northeast states, except Assam, also get covered in this phase - here also the Congress has some presence and in an election where even a single seat might prove crucial the stakes are higher than usual. The tribal states of Jharkhand (six out of 14) and Chhattisgarh (11) also see action - the BJP and Congress are in a direct fight here.
The crucial western state of Maharashtra (13 out of 48) has a curious situation. The Congress' alliance with a splinter group, the Nationalist Congress Party, is wobbly as the NCP has been playing footsie with all sides. Its president Sharad Pawar has prime ministerial ambitions of his own and may be willing to cast his lot with whoever might help him accomplish that end.
In the eastern seaboard state of Orissa, which saw anti-Christian riots in Kandhamal in all of 2008, 10 seats out of 21 see polling in the first phase - including in that troubled tribal district. Here, the ruling state party Biju Janata Dal has broken its 11-year-old alliance with the BJP to get on board the Third Front platform.
Not to mention Bihar, which is seen in India as a metaphor for backwardness. Here 13 seats out of 40 go to polls this week, and in the fray is the colorful personality of Union Rail Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, who is going into a perilous battle without the cover of Congress support.
The other notable whose fate gets decided this week comes from the far south: former United Nations under secretary general Shashi Tharoor, who ran for the highest office unsuccessfully against Ban Ki-moon. He is striding around purposefully in the Kerala capital of Thiruvanthapuram, having shed his three-piece suit for the local white mundu-shirt combo. Embracing regionalism via his attire and nationalism through his choice of political party, the Congress, he seems to offer the varying strands of the present elections in a single-package deal.
Santwana Bhattacharya is a New Delhi-based journalist who writes on politics, parliament and elections. She is currently working on a book on electoral reforms and the emergence of regional parties in India.