Hazy Political Scene
As India prepares for state elections, the anti-corruption movement is bound to be replaced with identity and caste as vote swingers.
We are entering an era where the political class is taking a worldwide beating. Some are witnessing the Occupy Wall Street movement while others have seen the election of a non-political civil rights leader as the Mayor of Seoul in South Korea. In India, the emergence of Anna Hazare as a symbol of Indian civil society challenging centuries of Congress Party legacy is another miracle to behold.
The political scenario thus appears hazy but this is not odd in democra- cies. While freedom of choice provided to constituents denotes liberty to the people to choose their representatives, more than often this is determined instead by interest groups, feudal oligarchies, ethnicity, caste and identity. India is no exception but interestingly it is now entering a phase where all such elements seem to be simultaneously jostling for space within the political spectrum, whether at the “panchayat,” municipal, state or national level. A process of internal shake-up is therefore inevitable.
This is all the more evident in the backdrop of the forthcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh: the largest and politically the most influential state in the country. To this mix, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur also offer their own unique electoral challenges. While corruption in the wake of the Commonwealth Games fiasco in 2010 was effectively highlighted by civil society groups such as India Against Corruption (IAC), also known as Team Anna led by Anna Hazare, a political counter-offensive launched by the ruling Congress party is currently trying to diffuse the impact of the campaign.
The movement also lacked the vigor of a public campaign and came to be seen as one conducted by a motley group of individuals with diverse views. The aura of morality that the members assumed by tarnishing political leaders has now given way to questioning of their political motives as well as their personal integrity. Exposure of irregularities and diverse political views of leading lights of this group such as former police officer Kiran Bedi, Arvind Kejriwal and lawyer Prashant Bhushan has led Anna Hazare to review his core group. Branded as a front of the Rashtriya Swyamsewak Sangh (RSS), Hazare has put himself in a corner from
where he may not be able to retrieve himself easily.
This is a sad development from the perspective of the campaign as probity in governance and public life may be put on the back burner and traditional issues such as identity and caste may once again become key levers for votes and power in the coming State elections. Of these, the Uttar Pradesh state hustings are likely to be the most combative. With 80 seats in the Lok Sabha or Lower House, UP has always been the decision-maker in Delhi. Even today, two main blocks of parliamentarians can swing the fate of the Manmohan Singh government: the Bahujan Samaj Party that is in power and its opponent, the Samajwadi Party. Both, despite being outside the government, have been using their bargaining power to the fullest.
The Congress, which has an old affiliation with UP being a Gandhi family borough with both Sonia and Rahul’s constituencies, unfortunately has not been doing well in the state for some years now. Last it was in power in UP was for a short period in 1998. Thus winning back the state is as much a question of honor for the party as a political necessity. On the other hand, the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, also drew its support from UP and is seeking a comeback.
These parties face a formidable opponent in Mayawati, a Dalit who comes from the grassroots and is seen as a triumph of the Indian political system that has transcended centuries old barriers of social strata. Relying on the state and motivated with strong ambitions of becoming the Prime Minister, Mayawati will be a force to reckon with. Which way the chips fall remains to be seen but the campaigning is likely to be grueling and caste and identity may gain over anti-corruption and development.
The other states may not be elec- torally as important as UP purely because they do not have the numbers in parliament, but with anti-incumbency likely to play a major role, the Congress is hopeful of toppling the opposition-led government in at least two of the three states, Punjab and Uttarakhand. Gujarat with the present Chief Minister from the BJP being strongly entrenched may, however, be another story.
Manipur in the North East is a travesty of Indian governance where the state remained blocked for over 100 days as roads were under siege by rival ethnic groups, Nagas and Kukis. Here the majority Meitei community will decide who occupies the hot seat of thorns with militancy and law and order being the main concerns.
While some say that the state elections will be a precursor to the general elections in 2014, perhaps more importantly these will also be a mandate of the people for the relatively (in political terms) young scion of the Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi. A win for the Congress in UP will pitchfork Rahul on the national hot seat in 2014. Having miserably failed in the Bihar elections last November at the hands of Nitish Kumar, an impeccably honest and dedicated leader of the Janata Dal (United), Rahul will have to pull out all stops in the trial by fire in UP. But will he be able to work the miracle against Mayawati who has assiduously nurtured her state through a mix of identity politics and governance? That remains to be seen.
Hopefully, in this clamor, the movement against corruption started by Hazare may not be buried for that is necessary to take India to the next stage of the development curve, politically as well as economically. The writer is an Indian military veteran and is Director, Sasia Security-risks.com Pvt Ltd - a research agency focused on security and risk management in South Asia.
A new contender.