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August 25, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Pritish Nandy

Soft options, hard choices

What will you vote for this time? A party? A specific issue? Or a person?

Let's look at each of these options and see where they take us in the complex world of contemporary politics.

Start with parties. Do you know what each party stands for? What the Congress stands for? Or the BJP? Or, for that matter, the Samata Party or the Janata Dal after the vast number of splits and mutations each of them have experienced? Or the Samajwadi Party, apart from the fact that it is headed by Mulayam Singh and for a brief while was cracked enough to propose that we pay Rs 2,000 crore to Pakistan as relief for Pokhran II?

This time, to add further confusion to chaos, we have a new party in the fray: Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party, which appears to stand for everything that the Congress stands for (minus Sonia of course) as well as everything that the Samajwadi Party stands for (which is perhaps why it has aligned with it in UP and Maharashtra) as well as everything that the Janata Dal stands for. Or at least its Deve Gowda faction does.

In fact, I for one can see no difference in thought or political ideology between the Nationalist Congress Party and the Samata or the Biju Janata Dal or the Rashtriya Janata Dal or the Lok Shakti. They all occupy the so-called middle kingdom (as Tolkien would have described it) between the Congress and the BJP and could quite as easily attach themselves to one or the other without in any way compromising on their principles.

This means you have the Congress on one side and the BJP on the other and this huge cast of regional and not-so-regional parties who can effortlessly switch sides and join whoever they want in a variety of possible permutations and combinations. Most of them stand for nothing but power and the few who do claim to stand for something or the other besides power (like, say, the BSP or the CPI-M) are always ready to jettison their principles whenever they smell power.

I have always admired Jyoti Basu and it saddens me to see the lion in winter sucking up to Sonia and declaiming that there is no better choice for the nation than to vote for the Congress. A party he has spent his entire lifetime attacking. Kanshi Ram, on the other hand, does not surprise me. He could be supporting the Congress in the morning, the Marxists at noon and the BJP at supper time. By night he could have dumped them all and be jitterbugging with Jayalalitha. There are no rights, no wrongs in his kind of politics.

There are also parties like the DMK and the AIADMK, where the ideology is near identical and only the leaders make the brand difference. It is like choosing between Coke and Pepsi. It does not matter which you vote for. Both stand for the same things. The choice is actually not between the DMK and the AIADMK; it is between Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha, their respective leaders. Karunanidhi is cunning, flexible and usually reliable. Jayalalitha is cunning, flexible and invariably unreliable.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal, on the other hand, hunts with the hounds, runs with the hares. While its one leader Laloo Prasad is in an uneasy alliance with Sonia, its other leader Mulayam Singh is in an equally uneasy alliance with Sharad Pawar and no one seems to find it peculiar that the two leaders of the same party are in alliance with two completely opposing and hostile groups hellbent on destroying each other in the coming polls.

There are many other examples to prove that there is little to choose between any of the parties. They all stand for different things at different points of time. While the Congress swears by secularism, we have often heard Sonia extol the virtues of Hindutva from campaign platforms. The BJP, on the other hand, speaks less and less of the issues that actually brought it to power. Like Hindutva, Swadeshi, Swaraj. Like corruption.

Its economic policies today are exactly the same as that of the Congress even though the manifestos sound different. Both are for more structural reforms, more liberalisation. The Swadeshi Jagran Manch has been clobbered into silence. The VHP and the Bajrang Dal are now seen as part of a manic minority, to be largely ignored. While the RSS has been exposed for what it always was. Infinitely larger than life.

So forget parties, forget ideology. We are living in an era of political opportunism and high pitched marketing. The battle for mindshare has nothing to do with what the product actually is. The attributes have taken over. It is, to repeat the example of the cola war, a fight between Coke and Pepsi where each brand assumes a specific persona for its marketing convenience in a particular environment. There is very little to choose between the two. But that does not diminish the intensity of the battle for marketshare and the big bucks that go with it.

The fight between the Congress and the BJP has assumed a similar intensity even as both parties are beginning to look, speak, behave more and more like each other. Power has this amazing ability to bring everybody on a common denominator. That is why the BJP and the Congress are looking more and more like each other. The only difference between them is people. People like Vajpayee and Advani, whatever they may do, will remain the face of the BJP. While Sonia will remain the face of the Congress. The rest are denizens of the middle kingdom and will come and go at will.

They will change parties, switch loyalties at the drop of a hat. They will leave one side to join the other with as much alacrity as they will leave the other side and rejoin their original alliance. This is no longer even considered unscrupulous in today's Aya Ram, Gaya Ram culture. It is judged on its political merits and applauded or ridiculed on the basis of its arithmetical outcome.

Morality, issues, ideology are all a sham. As in matka, the numbers are the most important. Nothing else counts. If the NCP does better in the forthcoming election than, say, the Shiv Sena do you think the BJP will have any qualms in dropping one for the other? Do you think Farooq will have any second thoughts about dropping the BJP and joining hands with the Congress if it ensures that he can stay in power? Do you think Ramakrishna Hegde is with the BJP because he believes in them? Or George Fernandes? Or, for that matter, Naveen Patnaik?

Consider the obverse. Did the BJP have any qualms about dropping Bansi Lal even though he was one of their most loyal partners? Does it have any qualms about reaching out to Sharad Pawar, whom they hated so strongly just one election back? So if you are looking for issues (like socialism or secularism or a corruption free government) do not bother to switch sides. They are all the same. They are socialist when it suits them. They are secular when it's convenient. They rave and rant against corruption when it wins them votes. But they are all ready to compromise. Sonia befriends Laloo and Jayalalitha. The BJP befriends Sukh Ram and Chautala.

So why not vote for people instead? People we like or can trust. After all, that is the advice everyone gives these days. Find a candidate with a clean, decent track record and vote for him or her.

But even that is fraught with danger as a friend of mine warned me the other day when she sent me an email, asking who among the following three I would vote for.

Candidate A associates with crooked politicians and consults astrologers. He's had two mistresses. He chain smokes and drinks 8 to 10 martinis a day. Candidate B has been kicked out of office twice, sleeps until noon, smoked opium in college and drinks a full quart of whiskey every evening. Candidate C is a decorated war hero, a vegetarian by conviction, does not smoke, does not drink except for an occasional beer and has never had an extramarital affair.

If, like me, you voted for Candidate C, you voted for Adolf Hitler. The ones you spurned were Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

Pritish Nandy

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