Print edition : May 07, 2004

A personality oriented electoral contest takes politics into the realm of the trivial and presents voters with a dilemma as they march to the polling booths with hopes of seeing a change in their lives.

In New Delhi

An election rally in Bikaner, Rajasthan.-SANDEEP SAXENA

PRIME MINISTER Atal Bihari Vajpayee seems impelled by a strong sense of destiny as he campaigns around the country, setting a pace that belies all rumours of physical infirmity. At a meeting in Beed in Maharashtra late-March, he admitted that he had not been keen on contesting. But he was jolted out of his dreams of a placid retirement by the realisation that the country, were he not to contest, could well slide into chaos.

Vajpayee retracted rather half-heartedly from this hugely self-regarding statement a few days later. What he meant was only that if individuals did not manfully shoulder their public responsibilities, the country could plunge into anarchy, said the Prime Minister's spokesmen. This was no reflection, they hastened to clarify, on his own perceived indispensability to the country's future.

The reasons for the embarrassment are obvious. To say that one man is all that stands between order and chaos is not a very extravagant advertisement for all the claims of progress in the six years that the BJP has been at the helm of the ruling coalition. Besides, it also piquantly leaves open the question of who might be the agents of the anarchy that Vajpayee claims to stand as a sole bulwark against. His bombast could well have been read as an implicit admission that his party's reserves of political responsibility and sanity do not run very deep, that just behind him stand the masters of mayhem like Narendra Modi.

Precisely this inference was drawn by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who denounced Vajpayee's statement as "most insulting to the people of India", and yet a useful, if unwitting, admission of the power struggle within the BJP. In other hands, Vajpayee's explosion of self-esteem was transformed into a salutary warning that the electorate should look beyond appearances and take a measure of the true character of the BJP.

The Prime Minister has a tough job to fulfil. He is on the one hand cast as the National Democratic Alliance's single most important claim to a renewed term in office. At the same time, in an election devoid of issues, Vajpayee has to project different personality traits - often mutually incompatible - for different audiences. The initial advantage garnered by the BJP through its loud propaganda offensive prior to the formal notification of elections, was largely frittered by early-April. In an election season stretching from the balmy days of spring to the torrid heat of an early summer, this has meant playing a variety of roles for the NDA's principal campaigner.

In January in Delhi, Vajpayee was a true liberal and a trenchant critic of the policy of literary censorship through mob vigilantism. He was most disapproving of the vandalism at Pune's Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute by the front organisations of his electoral allies, ostensibly in retribution for the denigration of Maratha icon Shivaji in a book that was partly researched there. Rather than ban the book and harass and intimidate all those who may have been involved in its authorship, the appropriate course, he suggested, may be to write a better book and to engage in a civilised debate.

On the campaign trail in Maharashtra in March, Vajpayee changed tune, full-throatedly declaring his endorsement of the State government's ban on the book. The Central government, he said, was willing to do all that was necessary to avenge the insult inflicted upon the Maratha sense of honour.

These instances can be multiplied. Part of the reason for these ideological gyrations can be found in Vajpayee's assessment, affirmed repeatedly, that this round of national elections is free of any divisive and emotive issues. It involves a dispassionate judgment by the electorate of what is in their best interest, and a considered vote for the party or political formation that best reassures them that their interests are secure.

A rather shrewd calculation underlay the BJP's electoral strategy. The 2003 monsoon had been benevolent beyond expectations and the festive season that followed was truly an occasion for giving thanks. The agonies of adversity and scarcity, fresh from the 2002 season, had given way to a sense of fulfilment. The "feel good" emotion was authentic, but occasioned in the main by relief that the dark memories of just a year before had been put away.

This brief shift in the public mood coincided with the sweeping triumphs the BJP registered in three out of four State Assembly elections in December. In conjunction, the two fostered a sense that the BJP was off and running, ready to defy the conventional understanding that "anti-incumbency" is an iron-clad law of India's electoral politics. In the process, the BJP hoped to recruit the social strata that had genuine reason to "feel good", to clinch the issue in its favour.

Expert studies indicate that the "feel good" propaganda offensive launched by the BJP is not devoid of a substantive social basis. There is in other words, a genuine "feel good" strata in the Indian polity today. The top 20 per cent of the urban population for instance, has increased its consumption expenditure by 30 per cent, over roughly the period of the NDA rule. The top 20 per cent of the rural population also pushed their way ahead in the social scale, expanding their consumption expenditure by the order of 10 per cent in this period. For the rest of the rural population, this period shows up an absolute squeeze on consumption. The "feel good" strata, in other words, are being held aloft by the sacrifices and the penury of at least half the population of the country. The perceived sense of disparity may have been momentarily assuaged by the rebound from the disastrous drought of 2002. But as the generous months of the kharif harvest have given way to the dry and dreary days of summer, "feel good" has evaporated as a popular sentiment.

The "feel good strata" nevertheless have disproportionate electoral influence and can set the tone and the agenda of campaign politics. That was the final bet of the BJP. But the calculus is looking increasingly tenuous. This has compelled recourse to the cult of the personality. The Prime Minister has been variously built up as a statesman who has put India on the world map, as a renunciate who will sacrifice all worldly power were he not compelled by the realities of India to put personal preferences aside, as a liberal who can speak with credibility to the best of world scholarship, and at the same time, a sectarian who can pander to the most extreme sense of social exclusivity.

Perhaps the BJP's greatest advantage today is that it faces an opponent that is determined to play by the same rules. In terms of a positive strategy, the Congress has little to offer, except to rely on the incumbency disadvantage and its own status as the sole nationally recognised alternative. Its election manifesto on all substantive issues offers either a pale reflection of the BJP's policy stances or a stronger affirmation of potentially the more divisive economic principles. As a party, the Congress has a greater susceptibility to the cult of the personality, having imbibed the dynastic principle over the two decades and more of its existence. Its response to the Vajpayee cult has been twofold. On the one hand, it has chosen to question certain presuppositions of the NDA propaganda - though not with the kind of vigour to suggest that it intends to reverse the many inequities of NDA rule. The Congress' greater emphasis has been on projecting its own personality-oriented claims to the loyalty of the Indian voters.

With both the principals choosing not to alienate the "feel good strata" and the vast majority of the electorate - with all their anxieties and expectations - being treated as mere incidentals, general elections 2004 may well come to represent the conjuncture when Indian politics passes over into the realm of triviality. This represents an acute dilemma for the voters who march with untrammelled enthusiasm to the polling booths in the belief that the choices they exercise will make a real difference to their lives and livelihoods. The analytical idiom in vogue today characterises the ongoing contest as the first to focus predominantly on issues of development: the bijli, sadak, paani (electricity, roads, water) or BSP paradigm. But all the hype that accompanied the launch of the campaign by the ruling coalition has lost its power to sway the public mind.

General Elections 2004 are likely to be won and lost on the basis of very conventional criteria like local configurations of caste and community, organisational abilities at the grassroots, and perceptions of what would be least antithetical to popular interests. Beyond the trivial contest of personalities, the decisive electoral tests on genuine developmental issues, still lies in the future.

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