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|May 17, 2001||
Amberish K Diwanji
The campaign against corruption is a middle-class phenomenon
The middle class is scandalized that the industrialized and literate state of Tamil Nadu actually chose J Jayalalitha over K Karunanidhi. The very same Jayalalitha who has been debarred from contesting elections; against whom the Madras high court has passed conviction sentences; against whom cases of corruption are pending, is ruling once more, while Karunanidhi is out.
So what prompted the average Tamil to elect Jayalalitha? Sure there must be many factors at play, some peculiar to Tamil Nadu, and which will be clearer later. But at least in the arena of corruption, Jayalalitha's victory should be an eye-opener for the middle class. Corruption is not "the" issue for the poor people of India. Former prime minister Chandra Shekhar had once peddled the same line. He appears to have been right.
The middle class, with secure jobs, homes, and lives, is concerned about the moral fabric of India; of making India a great power; of cleansing the political system; of transparency and accountability (the two biggest weaknesses in our system); of reducing pollution, of green spaces and clean water, of quality higher education and American visas. So far so good.
The poor, on the other hand, lead desperate lives. Their concerns are immediate, and they are for jobs, food, clothing, shelter and quality primary education. They don't care how these are made available (they really are not in a position to do so). It is the poor who need political patronage to get them jobs, ensure their slums are not destroyed and their children educated. This also explains why the poor always vote more regularly than the middle class or the rich. They are much more affected by politicians and policies.
The lament in the TN elections was that former chief minister K Karunanidhi had done much to beautify Madras, widen the roads and build infrastructure. It was of little help since the people still booted him out. But the point is, did the benefits of the improved infrastructure benefit the poor (that it may have in the next two years is, alas, a promise too far!)? Tamil Nadu is literate and industrialized, but did the literate poor benefit from the industries?
The poor don't "seem" to mind if their leader is corrupt as long as he can house them, take care of them, get them employment, and so on (a sort of Robin Hood). That is why Laloo is (was?) so popular: not because he made money, but because his earlier policies clearly benefited the poor. That is why the Asom Gana Parishad lost. Not because the voter perceived it as being more corrupt than the Congress (it may well be less corrupt), but because after 10 years out of the last 15 in power, it had done precious little for the people and the state.
The elections also reveal that the campaign against corruption is still a middle-class phenomenon. If at all a dent has to be made against corruption, it is imperative that the middle class (and the media) convince their poorer brethren that corruption hurts them even more than it does the middle class.
But before that, the middle class needs to understand the pain, sorrow, needs and fears of the poor. We need policies that benefit the poor even as they do the middle class. If this division is not healed, we shall be stuck with unworthy and corrupt politicians like Jayalalitha who, with all their flaws, win because they appeal to a particular section.
Unfortunately, the problem is, how do we elect honest politicians who can do all the above with a system that puts absolutely no premium on honesty?
There is also another tragedy. What are the choices available to the voter? If the TN voter did not want the DMK, what other choice did he have but the (corrupt) AIADMK? What choice did the Bengali voter have between a thoroughly ineffective Left Front and a Mamata Banerjee who insisted on behaving like a street hooligan?
While many have been applauding the arrival of the two-party system, the pitfall is what happens when both the parties are corrupt, ineffective and not worthy of this great country and its voters? Who do we, the voters, choose? Where is the alternative between the devil and the deep blue sea, the rascals and the rogues?
Meanwhile, the defeat of Mamata Banerjee should make her realize that the ranting and raving kind of politics has reached its limits. Ditching your allies at the last minute, that too in their hour of crisis, does not win new friends, but actually loses old friends.
In contrast to a screechy Mamata, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya bore himself with amazing dignity and clearly appeared a better choice even if the Leftists are disliked and their policies outdated. No wonder the Left Front even won seats in Calcutta, a city they had lost in the mid-1980s. But as Mamata's latest bout of screaming shows, she has still not learnt her lesson. The Bengali voter too needs a third alternative, but there is none on the horizon.
CORRIGENDA: In my last column on the NMD, para three should have read: India has more trade with the US than with China, there are more Indians in the US than in China (it was mistakenly written as India has more trade with US than China and there are more Indians in the US than Chinese, both of which are clearly wrong).
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