Election bells are ringing and politicians have started running around like plucked chicken. But they will triumph again because a hung Parliament will see horse-traders, bargain-hunters, blackmailers and moneybags putting together another coalition as pathetic as the present one. It might take some more time before an Indian Spring saves us from the Plundering Class and gives democracy a chance.
Interestingly, the first bugle for assembly elections has sounded in Karnataka where, only a few days earlier, the urban local area elections had taken place. In that round the BJP lost even its traditional strongholds in the coastal belt, indicating how angry the people had become over the party's corruption record climaxed by its chief minister's imprisonment and the continued jailing of its Bellary financier.
This is an opportunity for the Congress, but there is no evidence that it is seizing it. If the party elders campaign unitedly, if men with tainted track records are kept out, if younger leaders are brought forward, the Congress will regain people's trust. But such are not the calculations that lead this venerable party, even at the high command level. We should not be surprised if the leaders compete among themselves to give Rahul Gandhi all credit for the local area victories.
Elsewhere the culture of free gifts is heralding election season prosperity. Ever since N. T. Rama Rao launched the rupee-a-kilo rice as an election weapon, the idea has caught on. In Tamil Nadu competing parties now give free rice, free laptops, free mangalasutras, even free cows.
Orissa has learned the efficacy of this kind of politics. In the 2009 assembly elections, the Naveen Patnaik Government gave rice at Rs 2 a kilo. That clinched the Government's victory. So this time it is Re. 1 a kilo. Next time perhaps they will progress to free rice. They are also giving free mobiles to 20,000 farmers and free sim cards to one lakh fishermen, bicycles to class 10 students and Rs 5000 to pregnant women. The Government is spending a total of Rs 60,000 crore for these gifts. Which is a bit much because, unlike in Tamil Nadu, Orissa's ruling Patnaik party has no opposition strong enough to challenge it.
This year, however, the real importance of state elections lies in how they will affect the coming parliamentary elections. Every regional leader wants to become king-maker, if not king himself, in Delhi when the Lok Sabha elections lead, as widely expected, to chaos. In West Bengal, Bihar, UP, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, the ultimate goal is Delhi. People like Mulayam Singh and Sharad Pawar are already seeing themselves as heads of this coalition or that.
Coalition are a curse in India. Any splinter party can hold the entire government to ransom. With the DMK out of its orbit, the Manmohan Singh Government is at the mercy of Mulayam Singh and Mayawati, marvels of democracy even Mephistopheles would be scared to have as partners. One of the biggest scandals in our era of scandals involves irrigation funds in Maharashtra and facts and figures about it are out in the open. But because the portfolio is in the hands of the Pawar Congress, a "clean chit" had to be officially given to it by the Government headed by the other Congress. In Kerala, because the Congress-led coalition has only a thin majority, the Chief Minister has to be a dutiful rubber stamp to grave irregularities committed by the Muslim league and other partners in sin. In the states as well as in the Centre, for the sake of power, corruption and crime are accepted as democracy's privileges.
Coalitions are not a curse in mature democracies. The British Government today is a Tory-Liberal Party coalition. Other European countries have worked under coalition arrangements and worked well. Even Malaysia has been under a coalition system for a long time and achieved modernity and progress. It is not the system that is at fault; it is the people who pervert the system. Our political class has become so malignant that it will contaminate everything it touches. The election about to take place will not eliminate the malignancy or the contamination.