Election 2009: Numbers game sans big issues

May 15th, 2009 - 1:48 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh By Manish Chand
New Delhi, May 15 (IANS) Varun Gandhi’s hate speech, BJP’s attack on Manmohan Singh as “a weak prime minister” and the hitback by the Congress, shoe-throwing by a journalist to protest inaction over the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. These were some of the enduring images of India’s 15th general elections, in which the chase for allies trumped any serious debate over pressing national and global issues.

Unlike earlier elections, there was no single overarching issue or any attention-grabbing slogan to enthuse voters. There were no blazing Bofors guns showing up corruption in high places, as in 1989. Neither was there any ‘India Shining’ campaign to be mocked at, as in 2004. The hysteria associated with ‘masjid’ (mosque) and ‘mandir’ (temple) was missing, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) putting its Hindutva agenda on the backburner for the sake of coalition politics.

Kuldip Nayar, veteran journalist who has witnessed many elections, told IANS: “Nobody is raising any big issue. It looks like it’s an exercise politicians want to be done with so that real action (numbers game) can begin.”

The notable exception was the plight of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka - caught in the crossfire between government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - and this may play a huge role in the swing state that could decide the contours of the next government in New Delhi.

But apart from that, BJP candidate Varun Gandhi’s hate speech against Muslims while campaigning in the Pilibhit constituency of Uttar Pradesh was easily the scene-stealer in a lacklustre election that was largely devoid of drama, spectacle and lofty messianic promises that often accompany the poll carnival in the world’s most populous democracy.

Personalised attacks on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by the opposition BJP calling him a “weak prime minister” and the Congress’ spirited defence of their prime ministerial candidate was another leitmotif in the five-phase elections staggered over a month this blistering summer.

When combatants were not abusing one another, they were chasing potential allies in an increasingly promiscuous political landscape. Sworn opponents, driven by nothing other than the lust for power, tried to forge alliances in pursuit of the magical halfway mark in the next Lok Sabha - 272 seats.

Inflation, economic reforms, India’s strategy to deal with global economic meltdown, the India-US civil nuclear deal, the 26/11 Mumbai attack and Pakistan’s alleged role in it - politicians vying for power did talk about some of these issues, but they never came to the forefront.

The India-US nuclear deal, that sparked the split between the Left and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) leading to a confidence vote in parliament last year, had little resonance among voters and did not figure prominently in stump speeches of key protagonists on any side of the political faultlines.

The Left leaders, who are ideologically opposed to any strategic relationship with the US, raked up the deal in their campaign speeches in Kerala, but it wasn’t an overriding issue.

Eyeing the burgeoning urban middle class constituency, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani softened the party’s opposition to the deal, saying it will not scrap the deal if the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that the BJP leads came to power.

Other political parties, who first opposed the deal and then backed the UPA in the confidence vote last year, were conspicuously silent about it.

Regional parties, who appear set to hold the key to power in New Delhi, did not articulate any pan-India vision or speak about India’s place in the world.

The BJP tried to raise the issue of billions of dollars salted away in Swiss banks and other tax havens overseas. The Congress first sounded defensive, then hit back by pointing out that much of the stashing away had occurred when the NDA was in power, between 1999 and 2004.

Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, seen widely as the party’s future prime ministerial candidate, suggested: “Why don’t we work together to get the money back?” But that idea did not get far in the middle of a fractious campaign.

While voters across the country forced the candidates to confront environmental problems that affected their daily lives - water shortage in farms or air pollution in cities - the candidates themselves were silent on more overarching green issues, especially climate change, on which India will have to articulate its position at a global forum this year.

This campaign saw big technological leaps in the way candidates used the Internet, but the message often failed to live up to the medium.

Largely, across the country, the campaign was caught in local issues as increasingly aware voters demanded fulfilment of their basic everyday needs like electricity, water, roads, sanitation and jobs.

“Developmental issues are becoming increasingly important. Coalition politics gives expression to various regional and local aspirations. Nothing wrong with that,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst.

(Manish Chand can be contacted at manish.c@ians.in)

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