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February 25, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Question of unanswerables

As somebody who anchors a television programme in Delhi, I am always struck by the change in the mood of studio audience over the last nine months. Two years ago, when we first started shooting A Question of Answers. H D Deve Gowda was in office and the audiences -- composed of solid middle-class Delhi types -- were hysterically opposed to the United Front and the Congress. They made fun of Laloo Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav, regarded Deve Gowda as a vagrant who had illegally squatted at Race Course Road and treated Sitaram Kesri as a sick joke.

It was all too clear that they preferred the Bharatiya Janata Party. In their eyes, Atal Bihari Vajpayee could do no wrong, L K Advani was a strong and determined leader, the BJP would provide India with the kind of stable government it needed and the media comprised namby pamby "secularists" who were biased against the Sangh Parivar. In programme after programme, audiences would trot out the same themes: they hated politicians, but the BJP was better because it did not consist of the kind of venal buffoon who ran the Congress and the United Front.

It wasn't, you understand, that we recruited our audiences at the nearest shakha or put up signs saying "Knicker-wallahs welcome." The same kind of middle class audience turned up on every show on television. On the BBC's Question Time India (where the audience is more important than on A Question of Answers), Prannoy Roy faced a similar bunch of saffron sympathisers.

Then, about two months into the life of this government, the tide began to change. The audiences didn't give up on the BJP that easily. They first started on the allies. J Jayalalitha was an obvious hate figure. The middle class found her arrogant, unreasonable and too demanding. If the BJP had a fault, then it was that it gave in too easily to the demands of its allies. Next came the local criticisms. Why couldn't the BJP provide water and electricity? I imagined that because these complaints related to the spectacularly inept BJP state government in Delhi, there was no reason to assume that they reflected a general disillusionment with the BJP at a national level.

Perhaps I was wrong because no sooner had the assembly election results come in than the audiences scented blood. Now the central government was its only target. According to them, the BJP could do nothing right. It couldn't guarantee law and order. It had lost control of the price line. It had mishandled the fallout of the Pokhran blast. It was a prisoner to the Sangh Parivar. It genuflected to Bal Thackeray. It played havoc with the armed forces. And so on.

Even the individual leaders were not spared. L K Advani was regarded as a failure. George Fernandes, once the darling of the retired army officers who often joined the audience, became "just another politician" after the Vishnu Bhagwat sacking. Sushma Swaraj, whose rolling pin-wielding "I am one of you" manner had appealed to Delhi housewives, began to be seen as a noisy incompetent. And Murli Manohar Joshi, who had once wowed audiences with his erudition, was perceived as a dhoti-sporting, scripture-quoting fanatic.

Two months ago, before the cameras started rolling I sat with the panel, bantering with the audience (we were waiting for a panelist who was delayed). Pramod Mahajan, who represented the BJP on the programme, was struck by how much the tide had changed. To while away the time, we asked the audience whom they would like to see as prime minister. Less than five per cent voted for any BJP leader other than A B Vajpayee. (Advani got five per cent. The rest were worse off.) Congress leaders did better. (Manmohan Singh and Madhavrao Scindia got about 20 per cent).

Then, I asked the big question. Would they vote for Sonia Gandhi? Over half of this middle class audience, which had spent the last two years asking self-righteous questions about dynasty and Italians, went for her without hesitation. The rest hummed and hawed: "Well, if there is no alternative," and so on and so on.

Pramod began to look a little worried. To make him feel better, I asked if the audience would vote for Vajpayee alone (without the BJP baggage). Eighty per cent said they would. Pramod began to smile again.

As I say at the end of most episodes of A Question of Answers, these are the views of a Delhi middle class audience and do not represent India as a whole -- they don't even approximate the views of the Indian middle class.

But my point is this: these people were the BJP's core support group. If I had conducted a poll in Mumbai two years ago (at the time when my Delhi audiences were busy singing the BJP's praises), the Sangh Parivar would have done badly -- as the recent election results in Mumbai demonstrate, the city has had enough of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance's madness. In Calcutta, they would have been suspicious--with haughty Bengali middle class disdain - of the BJP's bhaiya origins. And in Chennai, the BJP has never been a factor.

Why has the north Indian middle class changed it mind? There is the traditional politician's argument. The middle class is the most fickle class in India. The 1985, they fell in love with Rajiv Gandhi and invested him with all kinds of qualities he did not have. Three years later, they decided he was a crook and shifted their affections to a new Mr Clean, V P Singh. Within four months of V P Singh's prime ministership, they gave up on him and turned to the BJP. And so on.

There is, I concede, something to this view. Doomed is the politician who counts on the middle class's support. But there must be something more to the anti-BJP feeling than just middle class capriciousness.

My guess is that the rise of the BJP (post-1986) came in two phases. The first, and crucial, phase was the Hindu backlash phase (1989-92). This was when public anger against the hard secularism of the Congress-Janata Dal variety was at its height and the BJP was able to tap into Hindu resentments.

But the second phase -- which took the BJP near an overall majority and the role of the logical counterpoint to the Congress -- came after 1992 and after the demolition of the Masjid. By then, hard secularism had been buried and the Hindu backlash was dead. Those who supported the BJP did so because they wanted a strong and effective government and regarded the BJP as an honest, disciplined party that deserved a chance now that everybody else had failed. It was this sort of feeling that led the middle class to support a BJP led government.

Alas, the BJP has not understood the message of the mandate. Sections of the Sangh Parivar, comprising nasty little fascists who got a dubious legitimacy during the Ayodhya movement, do not recognise that the Hindu middle class has moved away from the self-pitying ("We are second-class citizens in our own country") phase of the late Eighties and early Nineties. They think that the electorate has voted for their brand of communal poison.

There are saner voices within the BJP and most people would concede that Atal Bihari Vajpayee is one of them. But they face two problems. The first is that the lunatics within the Parivar will not listen to reason; nothing can stop them from celebrating when a nun is raped or a missionary burned. The middle class is ashamed of such lunatics and horrified by the thought that they might have voted for them.

The second problem is even more serious. In each state where the BJP has taken office, the electorate has quickly come to terms with the reality that despite the early hype, at the end of the day, the BJP's leaders aren't really all that different from the Janata Dal's or the Congress's. Thus, the governance they provide is qualitatively no different -- or even worse -- than what has gone before.

At a national level, the electorate is finally coming to grips with that basic fact. Most people are disappointed that this crowd turned out to be no better. But the middle class, because it is more articulate and because it had invested much more in the BJP, is the most obviously bitter. Hence, the middle class anger and disdain.

Perhaps the BJP recognises this. The prime minister has tried to rein in the Sangh Parivar's lunatics and to make this government more effective. But ultimately, however hard Vajpayee tries, he cannot change the nature of the beast. If its members are communal and inept, then there is not much that any prime minister can do. And if he does succeed in shutting the Vishwa Hindu Parishad up and delivering on some electoral promises it may be too late. The middle class is already discovering new virtues in Sonia Gandhi.

And perhaps two years into her term, the middle class will give up on her too…. But then, that's middle class politics.

Vir Sanghvi

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