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India in the grip of election fever

BJP candidate Narendra Modi

Backed by the corporate world: Narendra Modi of the BJP. Narendra Modi under a Creative Commons Licence

Here in India, we are in the middle of election mania. The entire country gets gripped by some sort of madness. It is a riveting, electrifying scene. Voters are polarized as never before. For most folks, elections have always been much of a muchness, the average attitude being that one party is mostly very much like the other.

This election, however, is different. It has been described, quite rightly, as India’s most historic election ever. There are claims from parties and politicians of every hue about fighting corruption, the price rise, poverty and inflation.  

The Aam Admi (AAP or common people’s) party definitely brought new hope to people, as this blog pointed out recently. However, most people felt completely let down and disillusioned when AAP won local Delhi elections only to abdicate power shortly after. They claim they resigned on principle. But this was not explained to their voters adequately, if at all. A furious public felt fooled and cheated. AAP leader Arjun Kejriwal was publicly slapped twice on the campaign trail, and a few others physically attacked. A reprehensible and criminal reaction, no doubt. But indicative of the depth of public anger and the bitter disappointment the voters felt. When results are out on 16 May, we will know beyond doubt whether Delhi voters have forgiven AAP and  Kejriwal.

The party, however, still has the cleanest politicians ever seen in an Indian election. Academics, writers, intellectuals, social workers and celebrities – women and men who have always shunned politics as ‘dirty’ – have flocked to stand for election; most, for the first time. The party’s supporters, too, are largely citizens who rallied to the anti-corruption movement that recently took India by storm. Opinion polls suggest they can’t really win, but everyone gives them marks for trying. It is pretty much a David vs Goliath battle. Little people fighting mammoth money power. But AAP remains the party of hope for people with real values, for the poor and against corruption.

The corporate world almost unanimously backs Narendra Modi. Note the emphasis on the man, not not his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). These people, to me, are morally bankrupt. They envision an India which will gallop forward economically. They dismiss the 2002 genocide as an aberration which won’t happen again. British politicians, too, are guilty of welcoming Modi, even though they know the truth behind the pogrom. The fact that adivasis are desperately poor in Gujarat, or that minimum wages beyond city peripheries remain as low as Bihar or Madhya Pradesh rates, does not bother our corporate money-makers. These privileged urban voters are mostly concerned with India’s image. They want us to move away from the shameful ‘Third world’ label and equal Singapore, Japan or rich Western countries. They fail to realize that if there is social unrest, or hatred between communities, India will be torn apart. Communal tensions have been part of the Indian scenario because of our history. But cultivating hatred cannot ever be a solution to India’s ills. The Hindutva brigade, or politically allies which espouse turning India into a Hindu country (the Indian Constitution declares India a secular country), cannot forever subdue minorities, even if they succeeded in killing a few thousand and terrorizing Muslims in Gujarat. Political pundits predict that Modi and his party will sweep the polls. It is a recipe for disaster. Secularists weep at the thought.

The Congress Party, which fought for India’s freedom, is currently facing its biggest electoral battle ever. For all its faults, it brought in more anti-poverty programmes than any other party in India’s history. And it was rights based. It gave us the Right to Education; the historic Forest Rights Bill, acknowledging adivasi peoples’ right to their ancestral forest lands; the National Rural  Employment Guarantee Act, a landmark act providing every rural family a guarantee of 100 days of employment per year; and the Food Security Law, providing 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban poor with subsidized food through a fairly decent public distribution system for several decades now. The National Rural Health Mission has made an impact on infant and maternal mortality in the last decade. Unlike former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a shrewd strategist, the Congress Party failed to shout this progress from the rooftops. Unfortunately, corruption and scams hogged the headlines, weakening the government considerably. Angry secularists and even BJP seniors have accused it of ‘handing India to the BJP on a plate’.

Madhusudan Mistry

I am proceeding to Vadodara, Gujarat, for a few days, in solidarity with old friend Madhusudan Mistry (right), who is personally fighting Modi. Mistry has worked with adivasis and Gujarat’s rural poor for decades before becoming a politician. He is known as a decent, good man. Most NGOs and social workers will be batting for Mistry. As individuals. Not much we can do but cheer for him and express our solidarity. It is spectacularly gutsy of Mistry to fight Modi. All power to him. And may the good guys win.

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