SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Reality, three bags full

FIRST STRIKE

ANIL DHARKER

... it was no to "India Shining".

... it was no to "India Shining".  

LET them eat prasad. That's said by the Marie Antoinnettes of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when told that India's people have no rice: if someone's hungry, the party's Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) inspiration seems to say, all he has to be given is a dose of religion.

It's a curious lesson to draw from the shock result of Election 2004. All the analyses points to an electorate that just wanted to kick butt. In every State in the country (except the foolishly faithful Marxists of Bengal), India didn't shine for the majority of voters, to the poor and the dispossessed. They got very little of roti, kapada aur makan. They got very little water. They got no electricity, no education, no doctors, no rural roads. The shining malls, Consumerist India and the large ad spends on goods they couldn't afford only acted as salt rubbed into festering wounds. Which is why incumbents got booted out.

You would think that's an easy enough lesson to understand. The Congress party and its national allies, at least seem to have digested it: the union budget was a clear indication of that. Yet the BJP's national executive was beating some very strange breasts. Atal Bihari Vajpayee turned the party's erstwhile hero, Narendra Modi, into its poll villain; most of the others including Lal Krishna Advani, looked into the future by grabbing the past.

Part of that past is the recent past: from the 1980s to the 1990s, the BJP's seats in the Lok Sabha increased from a mere two to as may as 162. This was due to the party's focus on Hindutva, exemplified by the demands for the Ayodhya temple, Advani's rath yatra and the demolition of the Babri Masjid. At least that is the conventional wisdom. And it is this conventional wisdom which still guides BJP policies.

But in doing so, everyone has forgotten a universal truth: times change; nothing remains exactly as it was. Political undercurrents and the electorates sentiments are determined by a context and the context changes, sometimes very rapidly. Between its rise from two seats in 1984, the large number in the 1990s, and the situation now, the context has changed considerably.

There was, then, a renewed interest in religion because of several factors. One was of a very visible, very strident kind which came from Doordarshan. There were no satellite television channels there, no Star, no Zee, no nothing. Only Doordarshan. Doordarshan supplied an unending feast of boredom, so when Ramayan and later Mahabharat came along, they got a near hundred per cent television audience. Both serials harked back to a (mythical) period when men were heroic, women were virtuous and times were better.

The absence of any alternative channel and the soporific nature of Doordarshan's other programmes were factor in the popularity of these serials but so was the absence of other forms of amusement. Look at the entertainment industry then and the entertainment industry now and the difference is startling.

There was also a political and social context which, consciously and sub-consciously, made many Indians receptive to religious signals. There was V.P. Singh's Mandalisation programme for backward castes which alienated the upper castes which form the backbone of the BJP's support. There was also the Indira Gandhi assassination, which added the Sikh to the Muslim in the villians role for the diehard Hindu.

Since then India has moved on. A changing world order, liberal economic policies and comfortable foreign exchange reserves have brought in globalisation into the country at a quite extra-ordinary pace. Western cultural values, regarded only a few years ago as threatening to the Indian value system, are now regarded as far more benign, partly because we have realised the inherent strength of our value system which retains its core even when placed in the middle of the United States of America. The Sangh Parivar will see nothing of this; It's a clear sign of how their ostrich necks are stuck in the sand when one of their functionaries says that Western culture leads to abnormal sexuality and produces lesbians and homosexuals. To everyone not wearing khaki half-pants, on the other hand, it is clear that the central message of Election 2004 was its economics, stupid. And economics as applied to the silent (and unheard) majority of the country, so that the incredible growth of 10.4 per cent over 2003 was shared equally and not hogged as it was by the upper class city dweller.

For everyone but the khakis, it's clear that it's the unequal sharing of economic fruit which caused the upheavals of the elections. The major gap is the national indifference to agricultural reform which needs major infusions of funding and urgent attention to infrastructure including irrigation, electricity and roads.

There is the need to generate employment. That means getting national attention away from outsourcing and call centres which add up to a mere one million jobs when the workforce is 400 million. It means getting away from the kind of skewed thinking of a Chandrababu Naidu who cut food subsidies for the poor of Andhra Pradesh because his exchequer couldn't afford it, so that the hungry had to buy rice at Rs 6.40 per kg when it was being exported at Rs 5.45 per kg. At the same time Naidu unveiled his vision of transforming Hyderabad into a world class futuristic city with Formula 1 racing as a core component. The Formula 1 infrastructure and its related requirements, incidentally, needed State support of Rs. 400 to Rs. 600 crores.

It means getting away from the warped mindset which sanctions 24 amusement and water parks in Mumbai using 50 billion litres of water a day when the poor have to queue up for hours for the precious commodity. Or the approval of a golf course in Rajasthan which consumes two million litres of water a day, a quantity which would meet the needs of one lakh villagers for an entire summer.

These are some of the issues involved. Not the building of a temple at Ayodhya, not a protest against the screening of Girlfriend, not the repression of minorities. The Manmohan Singh government seems to know this, which is why it's in power. The BJP wants to ignore it, which is why it will remain in exile.

Anil Dharker is a media critic, journalist and writer.

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