Saturday, April 16, 2011

Beyond Amul Baby, there is a war coming

Having to wait for a whole month to know who will rule key states like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala is not just unfair; it is cruel too. Prolonged anxiety will cause severe stress syndromes. It is true that a couple of truly delectable items were provided by the campaigners for us to chew upon as we wait. Mamata Banerji employing beauticians to do pedicure-manicure-facials is, in historical terms, a revolution. It's her way to out-revolutionise the professional revolutionaries of the Left Front. Let's hope that a presentable Mamata will win Bengali hearts so that the Railway Ministry can at last be rescued from her.

The real campaign gems of this election came from Kerala, though. Rahul Gandhi tied himself up in knots by ridiculing Achuthanandan for his age, 88, while swallowing the age of Karunanidhi, 87, because Karuna is a Congress ally. Achuta hit back in a manner that Rahul Gandhi will not forget for the rest of his life. He raised his voice to a sarcastic pitch and described the Congress princeling as an “Amul Baby”. That tag at once went into the political lexicon of the country even as it reverberated across the land.

All that is fun, but what about the serious business? For the first time in recent years, political parties in Tamil Nadu employed bribery openly and in defiance of election rules to buy votes. The Election Commission's own officials seized Rs 50 crore in currency notes as they were about to be distributed to voters. Five or six times that much money must have actually gone into voters' hands.

This is a throwback to the primitive practices of Bihar-UP in the early elections when booth capturing was a fashion. The disturbing element this time is that the Election Commission saw what was happening but was unable to prevent a great deal of illegalities. The Chief Election Commissioner openly admitted that money-flaunting had become a major problem in Tamil Nadu and that the party in power was the principal culprit.

The electoral fight vitiated by such blatant malpractices is not going to help the state, whoever wins. The silver lining is that it will add more voices to the cry for electoral reform. This is already part of the agenda set by the Anna Hazare movement. Anti-corruption legislation will have little meaning without a parallel arrangement to ensure crook-proof elections.

Getting that arrangement in place is going to take a major war. The Government agreeing to give independent civilians a role in drafting the Lok Pal Bill was a minor victory for public opinion. Perhaps the Government calculated that, once the emotionalism of a fast unto death was dissipated, things would be easy to manipulate. Reports of divisions in the Hazare camp seem to justify this reading.

Hazare is no magician and his ideas are not the final solution to all our problems. But it would be a mistake on the part of the Government and of politicians in general to underestimate the public anger over corruption. The string of scandals in recent times culminating in the Commonwealth Games and 2G spectrum and Hasan Ali cases have created a national mood the politicians can ignore only at their peril.

Decent Indians are trying to cleanse the country of the malignant politics that has attacked it in recent years. They are doing this through peaceful, constitutional means. With remarkable faith in the constitution, for example, Binayak Sen's case was pursued until the Supreme Court largely undid the injustice that was meted out to the doctor in the name of justice. This case underlines yet again that what we need are institutions we can rely upon rather than institutions vested interests can manipulate. The incredible spontaneity with which public opinion roused itself when Anna Hazare provided an opportunity should convince the politicians that they cannot be “people's representatives” and continue to ignore people's sentiments. The corrupt must go not to assemblies and Parliament, but to jail. There can be no more fooling of the people.