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Sunday, January 8, 2012

People Vs Politics

Reality caught up with Team Anna rather unexpectedly when its chief political backer, the BJP, welcomed tainted ex-BSP minister Babu Singh Khushwaha into the party on the eve of the UP assembly polls. In a state where the difference between victory and defeat often rests on arithmetic rather than chemistry, the BJP opted to discard Anna's anticorruption plank for cold caste calculations. An internal survey commissioned by the party had listed Khushwaha as an important leader of an OBC group with sizeable presence in as many as 100 assembly segments across the state. It was a choice between taking the high moral ground with Anna or chasing votes with the BSP discard. Realpolitik won.

The Khushwaha drama has jolted Team Anna's hopes of taking its anticorruption campaign into the electoral arena to vanquish the Congress with the help of the BJP. It has also dented corruption as an issue in the upcoming five state assembly polls in which the BJP had hoped to ride the Anna tiger to corner the Congress. The heat and dust of an Indian election have swamped a year of hype that was supposed to culminate in a referendum of sorts in 2012 on corruption perceptions.

It was naive , and unrealistic, too, for Anna and his band of supporters to dream of making their campaign the flavour of this next round of polls. Elections are far too complex, multi-layered and multi-dimensional for a single issue to dominate. In our first-past-thepost system, in which a party can win with as little as 25 % of the vote, a whole range of factors influence the outcome - caste and community interests, money power, governance and development issues and often, a simple desire for change, even if it means voting for someone with a criminal record.

Team Anna may have also erred in over reading middle India's angst over corruption. Much of the support for Anna's campaign arose from public outrage over the series of scams that broke around the Manmohan Singh government. But the forthcoming polls are not about the Centre's performance. These are assembly elections in which voters will judge the governments in their states. The Congress is not in power in three of the five states. Consequently, it is within striking distance of victory in Punjab and Uttarakhand and may even post a creditable performance in UP where it hasn't held office for over 20 years. Elections often throw up ironies of this kind; so, despite the falling credibility and authority of its government in New Delhi, the Congress may bounce back in the states, CWG and 2 G notwithstanding.

BJP leader Arun Jaitley recalls that the 1989 Lok Sabha election was the only one he remembers in which corruption became the main motif. The entire opposition rallied behind V P Singh to accuse Rajiv Gandhi of taking a kickback in the Bofors gun purchase. Rajiv lost despite having bagged a historic majority just five years earlier. "There have been other elections in which corruption has figured but it was overlaid with other issues,'' Jaitley says. Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh were booted out of Bihar and UP in 2005 and 2007 respectively, not because they were embroiled in corruption cases but because they both ran lousy governments . Administrative negligence, failure to curb crime and Yadav mafia rule proved to be their undoing.

"People don't vote on only one issue'' agrees Congress leader Mohan Prakash. "There are many angles to the anti-incumbency factor. Corruption is just one part.'' He recalls that Ashok Gehlot's Congress government in Rajasthan was defeated in 2003 because of governance and caste issues. Although Gehlot had a clean reputation, his aloof and standoffish manner and his reluctance to hand out favours antagonized important social groups.

Although our democracy is feudal in nature and the relationship between voters and their elected representatives continues to be one of patronage, change is discernible. Voters are slowly but surely laying down norms of conduct for those they elect. And if their expectations are belied, they unhesitatingly throw out the incumbents.

Unfortunately , they usually end up voting in another tainted person or government because our electoral system is not evolved enough yet to present voters with wider choices.

In Tamil Nadu's revolving door setup, it's Jayalalithaa one time and Karunanidhi the next. In UP this time, voters face the dilemma of choosing between Mayawati and Mulayam, both of who are under CBI investigation for unaccounted wealth.

Presented with a narrow political field, it is not surprising that voters are willing to take political corruption in their stride. But it's not just cynicism. Over the past 20 years, people's aspirations have soared and so have their expectations from their elected representatives . According to poll analyst Vinod Bajaj, who has been monitoring elections for several decades, "People want schools, roads, hospitals, electricity and water. We have noticed over the years that development has become a big issue. People will vote for those they think can deliver.''

This was probably the reason late Congress leader Y S Rajasekhara Reddy was voted back for a second term in Andhra Pradesh in 2009 despite the real estate, mining and other scams supposedly associated with him and his family . His social welfare schemes, especially in health care, and the decline in Naxalite violence endeared him to voters who were willing to look the other way. The skeletons are now tumbling out of the closet with the CBI closing in on his son, Jaganmohan Reddy.

Caste and community are other factors that have traditionally influenced elections. And in today's empowered India, identity politics has reached a feverish pitch to fragment the polity into smaller interest groups, creating a complex election calculus that makes it virtually impossible to predict an election, even by the candidates themselves . It's all about crafting social alliances of various castes and communities to arrive at a winning combination. Group interests are so powerful and calculations so intricate that other issues often cease to matter.

"Caste loyalties give social sanction to corruption,'' says Jaitley. "It's an unfortunate phenomenon and corruption has survived because of this. This social sanction will have to be dismantled.'' In UP, Mayawati remains an iconic figure for Dalits although she is pilloried regularly for her statue fetish and her corrupt ways. In Punjab, the Jat Sikhs are solidly with the Akali Dal despite the dynastic politics of the Badal family and the slew of corruption charges against them.

It is this complex dynamic that Team Anna audaciously sought to change with its single-point anti-corruption campaign. Yet, political leaders acknowledge that Anna has succeeded in kindling large-scale angst over corruption. The speed with which Mayawati is dumping tainted ministers and the ongoing row in the SP over giving a ticket to UP's most notorious mafia don, D P Yadav, are all signals that politicians are on the defensive. Anna may just have made a difference, albeit in a small way.

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