In UP, out comes the bag of dirty tricks

Going by the quality of language being used in the ongoing election campaign, no one would ever believe that India is an ancient civilisation. The Election Commission has found it fit to restrain the Bharatiya Janata Party’s general secretary, Amit Shah, and the Samajwadi Party leader, Azam Khan, from making public speeches.

 This step has come after both of them indulged in speeches that were designed to achieve the same goal – communal polarisation – albeit with different motives. Shah was looking to galvanise Hindu votes for the BJP, and Khan had targeted the Muslim votes for the Samajwadi Party.

 Even casual observers of the political scene are not surprised at this development. Indeed,  Shah and Khan behaving otherwise would have been a surprise element. When it comes to the caste and communally-sensitive Uttar Pradesh, polarisation along religious and communal lines has been the stock-in-trade for the BJP and the Samajwadi Party. For more than two decades now, all the BJP leaders have acknowledged the role of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the political rise of the party.

In this election, the main campaigner, Narendra Modi, may be talking of development and other issues, but the fact that he deputed Amit Shah as his pointsman in Uttar Pradesh soon after taking charge as the chairman of the party’s campaign committee is by itself an adequate indication of the direction of the party’s electioneering effort.

Given Shah’s reputation as Modi’s hatchet man, it was but natural that he would be using the lingo that was ultimately found objectionable by the Election Commission.

 The same story was expected to unfold with Azam Khan. He too has a long history of using a language that endears him to his supporters with his community, but also has divisive overtones. Interestingly, both Shah and Khan have used almost the same arguments to protest against the EC’s decision.

 In an ideal political world, no one would cross such boundaries of decency in public discourse or use divisive expressions. But then our elections are conducted in a far from ideal setting, and every available manipulative tool is deployed. Not just that, every possible unfair practice that can be deployed without attracting the provisions of law is also exploited.

Needless to say, the voters are not just susceptible to such practices, they also relish such deeds at the time. Indeed, the voter believes that as the ultimate arbiter of the politician’s fate, he or she has the divine right to accept all the bribes that are offered by politicians, and then take an independent voting decision.

Purists might question the independence of choice after accepting any bribe, but the fact that bribes come from multiple sources lends an element of freedom from any correspondence between the bribe and the voting choice.

 In fact, in a democracy, the elections are undoubtedly a form of an ultimate war for power. It is common to hear tales of bitter, and at times, bloody clashes down at the village level when there are panchayat elections. These take place even when these elections are held without the formal participation of political parties.

It is also common for such divisions at village level to get cemented for all times to come, and be reflected on and off. The use of electronic voting machines that give the village the details of votes polled by every candidate, has further added to these divisions.

Now people know which is a Congress booth, and which is a BJP-one. ‘Jitna vote, utna kaam” –  is a commonly heard phrase during campaign speeches, as candidates move from village to village seeking votes. So, it is not Shah and Khan who talk in divisive terms, the malady extends to the booth level.

 The problem at the national level is quite different. Come to think of it, there is nothing that substantially separates the Congress from the BJP in terms of economic policies and administrative abilities. The  proof of this reality lies in the fact that for the last 25 years since the advent of the Narasimha Rao-led economic liberalization, barring a hew nuances here and there, successive prime ministers down to Manmohan Singh have charted the same course.

Nor has there been any dramatic change in the quality of governance. Surely, there can be endless hair-splitting with the spin doctors for each of the prime ministers overselling the case for their protagonists. But the broad GDP figures over the same period tell their own tale convincingly.

So, the difference is actually ideological and too confined to the idea of India – whether it should be a secular India or a Hindu Pakistan? Like it or not, it is the same question that has bedevilled the subcontinent.

Sixty-seven years ago, Jinnah, as the sole spokesperson of the Muslims, did not trust a Hindu Congress to guard the interests of the Muslims. Now Narendra Modi is telling the people that he alone can save India from all the ills – corruption, atrocities against women and price rise et al.

 There is an atmosphere in which his claims are being heard almost unquestioningly. So, much so that in the midst of the campaign, he has started sounding prime ministerial, and is making the kind of statements that are made before the start of a Parliament session.

His tone in recent interviews is of an assumed victor, who is not even prepared to wait for the formality of the votes to be counted. “When you give me 60 months, I do not have time to waste,” he says in his interviews.

 Interestingly, the role of the Congress has not changed. Its leadership is still making the same argument about the idea of a secular India. Its leaders lost the argument to Jinnah 67 years ago, and the country got divided. This time, there is no such threat, but then ten years of its governance at the head of the UPA have diminished its claim to have another shot at power.

Anil Sharma

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Free Press Journal