Thursday, May 21

Ides of May, Democracy and Hope

My first tryst with the ballot box, albeit vicarious, is one of my clear preteen memories. It had followed a few years of two arguably toxic influences. The first was not really of my choosing - an accident of birth in India's likely most politically active state indelible imprints ome's social DNA. It also begot a marked proclivity to opinion-sharing as my later day acquaintances would vouch! Secondly, such leanings were accentuated by my skewed reading habit: newspapers had displaced ACK and assorted comics as my lunchtime companion. The coincidence that HT set up shop in my hometown in only their second edition outside the national capital helped no doubt too.

Whatever the fount for this hyperactive appetite for news and views on things political, fact is that the 1984 election was epochal. Its preceding event had been notoriously described by a key protagonist as "when a giant tree falls, the earth below shakes". Consequent sympathy, combined with Obamaesque appeal to change and youthful vitality, delivered a verdict that shattered all electoral records. It remains possibly the strongest mandate India would hand any of her progeny. My inclinations too were firmly in line with national pulse!

Unfortunately for me - and India - this virginal promise was belied. What followed is perhaps best described in words of the incomparable Nani Palkhivala. In his seminal We the Nation, the doyen adapted Malcolm Muggeridge, to write: "never was any generation of men intent upon the pursuit of well-being more advantageously placed to attain it, who yet, with seeming deliberation, took the opposite course - towards chaos instead of order, towards breakdown instead of stability, towards destruction and darkness instead of life, creativity and light."

This is hardly to argue that no good came about in the Rajiv years. Indeed, economic paradigm shifts that became more pronounced in the Nineties came by via policy changes in his regime. This included a challenge to overarching primacy of politics in social discourse. Yet, the overwhelming mood in Elections at the turn of the decade was one of frittered opportunities. It did not leave me untouched. In fact, the angst had spilled over to the streets with a vengeance; and a new Mr Clean was its visible face. Personally, a mild sense of bitterness and nascent anti-establishment spirit had me switch party preferences while still being by and large ambivalent about the new hero.

The other reality of electoral life in those times of muted strife was the ill-mourned phenomenon of booth capturing. Variously manifest in avatars ranging from 'scientific booth management' a la Comrades in West Bengal, to seething discontent of denied Dalit voice across the hinterland, and in-your-face muscle power assertion of Bahubalis in Laloo's Bihar; this malaise made a mockery of universal suffrage. The maturing of Indian democracy (and rampant cynicism perhaps) was apparent in the expose Doordarshan ran on it though, making Nalini Singh a household name. It inspired a generation of budding journalists as much as Tehelka's scandal-mongering or early-Barkha bravado a few years later.

As it transpired, the 1989 verdict was split - but the writing was on the wall. VP Singh, erstwhile Congressman and Sanjay acolyte, took charge at the helm in Delhi, with forces from opposite ends of the political spectrum 'supporting the government from outside'. Internal quibbling beset the Janata Dal government from day 1. It took but a few months for the rag-tag coalition to come crumbling down, but not before the Raja of Manda contributed his specious bit towards social re-engineering (euphemism for vote bank creation). The new political forces unleashed through Mandal were some this misdirected messiah little understood, far less master. Yet, they changed the political landscape of the country for good.

The dispensation that followed VP's gave PM status to an old Young Turk: one who had challenged Mrs G in the 70s and whose supporters had fought a televised pitched battle with Shri Ram Jethmalani (trying Gandhian tactics for consensus with the Warrior of Ballia over post-election JD leadership) a few months ago. As a government it was meant to bide time, which it admirably did; and not disturb historians much, which it did not. Yes, there was the seemingly minor embarrassment when our sovereign Republic had to pledge gold to honour debt servicing commitments to multilateral lending institutions; but the happenstance was too big for Chandra Shekhar's footnote-in-history regime to be credited for.

Elections were announced in the summer of 1991, with disillusionment over the non-Congress experiment on the rise and Mandal-Mandir working overtime to cement their respective positions in our polity. With a heart pulled strongly Right, my silent vote had one only other potential legatee: the original Harbinger of Hope, wizened by the decline and fall of his 411/542 government. One felt Rajiv's battle-hardened second coming, with his political instinct more sharply honed, would be much more cohesive and incisive.

It could have been a great combination. And for a second time, it was not to be. An erstwhile misadventure returned to haunt him - fatally - an evening eighteen years ago to the day, while on the campaign trail in a dusty town on Chennai's outskirts. In classical mould of the sub-continent's political drama, the conspiracy behind the assassination at Sripreumbudur was never entirely untangled, at least in the public domain, except affirming that an LTTE suicide squad had been its instrument. Perhaps far greater than the facts, repressed or otherwise, was the tale of a tragically extinguished promise: avowed goals, potency of means but missed opportunities in 1984; lessons learnt, methods revitalized but a life cut short seven years later. Too soon.

PS: The chief architect of the May misfortune was killed by the bullet he had lived much of his life by: this week, not too soon.


Learner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Learner said...

Dear Bandhu,
Here is another take on the seemingly tragic events of the subcontinent. But I would like to take you further back, twenty years from 1991, when our young man's mother won a famous victory and Bangladesh was created. In three years, the whole of India was in flames. Corruption had been an issue before too, but why was this happening in the wake of 1971? On the other side of the border, the gallant Banga Bandhu, one of the greatest political leaders this subcontinent will ever see, was murdered in cold blood, just four years after India had crowned him king. What was going on? My take is, Mrs. Gandhi had upset the calculations of two hungry dogs, one in North America and the other in North Asia. So they had to do something to upset the applecart. Bangladesh was easy pickings- bribing a few disgruntled armymen was enough, India was more difficult- hence the Emergency et al. But the end result was still achieved- Mrs. Gandhi, the Invincible, lost power. Cut to 1984, Mrs. Gandhi dies, and a relative greenhorn comes to power. But Lo and behold, the greenhorn can actually think! In the five years that he is in power, he brings in initiatives that India is still reaping benefits from: National Telecom Mission which was the harbinger of our IT and Telecom revolution, STI PCOs and what not (during my work in Rajasthan, there were places you would not think of getting water, which still had the ubiquitous yellow trapezium), the Panchayati Raj amendment (about which the wretched Press had said this will be the way the PM will directly bribe the Sarpanches, and yet, which I have personally seen how it is bringing empowerment to the grassroots), Zonal Cultural Centres, National Watershed Mission, Shatabdi trains, the various accords- Punjab, Assam, Nagaland and so on, the vision of Indian Navy as a blue water navy...the list goes on.
In come the followers of Sun Tzu, according to whom the best way to fight your enemy is not to fight him directly. Hence the use of LTTE to do the dirty work. If Rajiv Gandhi had come back, the biggest loser would have been our barbaric northern neighbour, in their inexorable march towards world domination, towards the restoration of the Middle Kingdom. I call them barbaric because the Cultural Revolution has removed any semblance of culture that they might have had, on account of their ancient civilization. My point is, whenever India has moved towards greater political stability, forces have worked conspiringly to take it in the direction opposite. To me, 1971 and 1984 in that sense have eerie similarities, Baba Palkhiwala's lamentations notwithstanding. Think about it, Bandhu. Now I do not laugh at Rajiv Gandhi / Foreign hand jokes anymore. I feel sad at having participated in the political assassination of a good man at the hands of the media. A good man who loved his country, and to whom his country owes so much.

Anonymous said...

P.O.L.I.T.I.C.S.... In spite of utter disinterest, distrust and above all my denseness towards this 8 letter word, I thoroughly enjoyed every word - each & every word - word when clubbed with the rest put down by you, depicted, erstwhile happenings of Indian Dominion. Your narration drove my thoughts back when I was spending summer holidays at my favorite Aunt's house in Delhi, it was early morning, early enough for a rowdy 10 year old to wake up while holidaying ... someone on the television was yapping about a suicidal bomb blast in which Rajiv Gandhi was killed ... I spent the entire day questioning Ma, as to why would someone kill Rajiv Gandhi and that if she was sure about his demise. On being reassured by her and multiple sources I couldn't resist the tear drop which I was holding back since morning, even decided to forgo the evening frolic in the neighboring park with my Favorite Kins … Kins, whom I haven’t seen in ages and a Leader, whom I still miss at times.