Hung Parliament

There are scores of questions after the Mumbai carnage. The hollow edifice of the Indian political system is under scrutiny. A wave of anger, disgust and urge for change is sweeping the inner layers of the country. Will it all express itself in the next Parliament?

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi, Hardnews

During the Karnataka assembly elections some months ago, the police intercepted a car near Bangalore. As the driver brought the car to a halt, police were puzzled by the gunny bags that were stuffed in the passenger's seat. Opening the luggage compartment, the men in khaki saw more bags. "What are in these bags?" a policeman asked the driver, who had, meanwhile made good his disappearance in darkness. When the bags were cut open, they were found to be full of currency notes in Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 denominations. No one owned up the money, which turned out to be several crores. Police sources claim that another car stacked with money was nabbed by them.

It is not clear whether anyone missed the money. No one really knows who it was destined for and why. Did the candidate for whom the money was meant win or lose the election? No one knows about it as there were so many moneybags flaunting dubious money who were contesting the Karnataka assembly elections. There were people with criminal background who allegedly raked in crores by dealing in drugs, extortion etc.

All these had prepared their paradigm for success in the elections. You could win an election by spreading money all around. In Karnataka, the Congress, BJP and Janata Dal (S) were flush with funds and spent them generously. Voters were liberally given money to vote for them. Did it matter whether a candidate represented the right kind of ideology or promised quality governance?

It is not really clear. There are those who believe that in a post-liberal world where there is nothing to choose between political parties, the only language that works with voters is money. Would an economy strangulated by the slowdown continue to show these traits? If you listen to many politicians, scrounging funds from everywhere to fight this election, then this would be no different.

Corroboration of this theory is provided by recent assembly by-elections (January 12) in Tirumangalam. The DMK won it by 40,000 votes. A whopping margin if one considers that it was a small assembly seat. "It is rumoured that each voter was given Rs 5,000-6,000 by supporters of both the parties," a senior Tamil leader told Hardnews. "You can imagine how much money was spent in this election. I hope Tirumangalam does not become a standard for fighting the general elections."

Although Tirumangalam's example will be used to kill any contrary view, a gentle Zephyr is blowing all over the country against criminals who manage to slime their way inside Parliament/assemblies and, later, in the government. This mood caught fire after the Mumbai terror attack when the chattering classes began to link our country's lack of preparedness with the politicisation of policing and national security issues.

Television channels played a big role in feeding this hatred. But a positive consequence of this debate is that it ushered in healthy introspection within the educated classes about what was really going wrong with us as a nation-state. Why has the country become a punching bag for terrorists to come and strike at us at will? What about the poor quality of governance that we get at the hands of the people's representatives that we elect? There are scores of questions that have cropped up in the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai happenings. For weeks, politicians were reluctant to step out and be seen in meetings. In TV studios, they were hooted and booed.

Tough questions began to be asked by the Muslims against police investigations that blamed all terror attacks on them. The Batla House encounter became a watershed event when two youngsters near the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi were killed by the Special Cell of Delhi, branding them as terrorists. Holes in the police version have been pointed by the Jamia Teachers' Solidarity Group which has indicated that it is a fake encounter. This incident has inflamed the community to such an extent that thousands of Muslims converged from different parts of the country to demand justice. Their confidence on the ability of the Indian state to dispense justice has soared after the Mumbai Anti-Terror Squad chief, late Hemant Karkare, found the involvement of Hindutva elements in the Malegaon blasts.

Young Muslims have begun to question the blatantly false allegations that were levelled against their community -- showing sympathy to Pakistan or Islamic terror. "The biggest contribution has been made by the Deoband seminary when it said that terror has nothing to do with Islam," owned up a BJP leader grudgingly. A wave of change is sweeping the Muslims in UP and elsewhere that will upset the calculations of those who preyed on divisions among religions.

Interestingly, this quiet wave has the potential to give bounce to the Congress if it projects Rahul Gandhi and his sister, Priyanka. Non-partisan political observers would not shy away from admitting that, for the first time, there are people willing to vote for the Congress in a multi-layered state like UP. "If the Congress handles its campaign properly then it could do far better than what it expects," claimed a political observer in Lucknow's famous Coffee House. "It could even get more seats than last time and that, too, contesting alone." Others do not buy this theory, but the truth is that politics has suddenly opened up like never before.

Mayawati, too, hopes to take advantage of the change in mood among voters. She is packaging herself as the agent of change. Some columnists have foolishly shown her as the Indian Barack Obama, which in some ways is grave injustice to the cerebral US president. Mayawati, living on this audacity, hopes to rustle up enough numbers to become the prime minister of this country. She has botched up her record book by giving tickets to criminals and mafia dons. A move that will horribly backfire on her.

Obama and his message of change are so hot in these elections that everyone, who has enough money to spend, is putting up their posters with a looming image of the US president at the backdrop. Chiranjeevi, filmstar-turned-politician of Andhra Pradesh, who has shown great power to pull crowds, had put up big hoardings with Obama. Recently, he jettisoned Obama and mounted a big picture of the great Colombian revolutionary Che Guevara who led the Cuban revolution.

The BJP is trying to tap this mood in its own way. LK Advani is using Obama's web-based campaign to connect with the youth. Needless to say, he is looking pathetic and tired. Only Narendra Modi is in a position to take advantage of this desire for change. But Modi has blood on his hands which he just can't wash off; and his politics is so brazenly sectarian, communal and divisive that he can't even push the boundaries of Gujarat.

Many people are not able to quantify what they mean when they look for change. Despite the confusion, they are seeking out people, TV programmes, blogs that echo their inner feelings. Dr Jayaprakash Narayan, who gave up his job in the Indian government to work towards bringing probity in public life, set up his organisation called Lok Satta. Narayan has been campaigning against corruption and its impact on elections. In a meeting near Hyderabad, Hardnews found huge response to his appeal to bring in change. Every time he criticised the state government or the Centre, he got a good round of applause. Enthused by the response he is getting from the middle class, Narayan told Hardnews that he was hoping to contest the Parliament elections this time, but felt that money could be a constraint. "Election campaigns have been made expensive to keep the good guys out of politics," a supporter told Hardnews.

There are many more like him who are giving up jobs and settled careers to enter politics and make a difference. If anyone trawls the net then one finds palpable anxiety among the educated youth about the stasis in the country. They are disgusted by the drift, by the expediency of politics, by the sleazy ways of brokers and fixers in political parties and everything that contributes to make this country into a stinking, putrefying slum where merit remains buried in red tape, mutual jealousies and total lack of vision or social justice.

But, things are changing. And, the young want to use the power of the vote to do that. Ask Election Commissioner, YS Qureshi, about what is happening on the ground and he would tell you with great pride how the people beat back the militants' guns to vote in Kashmir. He would also tell you about the phenomenal impact that the advertising campaign Jaago re, vote do is having on the youth. "It is no longer chic to not vote," he resonates the ad campaign. Even Delhi Chief Minister, Sheila Dixit, who has been a harbinger of change in the capital, benefited enormously from this campaign during the December elections.

The Election Commission (EC) would have to take some of the blame for the rise in expenses of each candidate that in ways distorts mandates and creates corrupt governments. Since it became obsessive about controlling expenditure a few years ago, it has smothered the celebration that used to take place during election time. The small expenditure on posters, banners and hoardings has spawned bigger spending like paying each voter. The EC would have to get over a petty accountant's mindset to ensure that the dynamics of fighting elections does not stifle the desire for change that is sweeping the country. It will have to find ways where democracy becomes better informed and spawns debates, discussions and quality pamphleteering. Tragically, all this has become a casualty to keeping manifest expenses under check.

Undoubtedly, economic slowdown will impact the elections. There will be few Tirumangalams in Parliament elections as businessmen would be loathe to spend too much. As Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav perceptively pointed out that due to the slowdown businessmen would not even respond to their phone calls.

Due to a host of reasons, India is sitting on a cusp of a great opportunity. There could be hundreds of slumdog millionaires who could inherit the earth by shaking themselves off the yoke of criminals, venal politicians as well as flotsam and jetsam that float at the top of our political system. This is indeed Jai ho time for Indian politics. But will it translate on the ground and in May 2009?