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The notion of Dharma
December 08, 2003
In the days before opinion polls and exit polls became growth industries and sources of disinformation, only journalists had the monopoly of getting electoral forecasts horribly wrong. During election season, there were two types of media reports in evidence. The first, and by far the most honest exercise, consisted of hapless reporters who, regardless of what they actually felt, concluded that every encounter was a 'tough fight' because there were too many local imponderables. The complexities of micro-level caste equations, the dynamics of block level factionalism within parties and the outpourings of every village chief found expression in such reports. Predictably, these meandering exercises in prevarication proved too bland for popular taste and a new school of popular journalism emerged.
In an age of black and white, these reporters produced what was called colour copy. The most readable of these were riveting descriptions of the heat and dust of the campaign. At a time when Doordarshan steered clear of anything but official handouts and not-too-subtle propaganda for the ruling Congress party, they were the only accounts of the passions generated by N T Rama Rao and M G Ramachandran or the buffoonery of Raj Narain.
Competing with them were the pop sociologists, usually blessed with dollops of radical sentiment. They never believed what they saw on the trail of the charismatic or what they heard while sipping tea with local peasants. To them, there was always a hidden dimension usually located in abstruse concepts like the moral economy or grassroots secularism. Mysteriously, or perhaps not so, deciphering the mental haze of the voter invariably led to expedient conclusions.
My scrapbook of the 1984 general election, which produced the most conclusive Congress victory to date, is full of delicious reports predicting how Amitabh Bachchan would get a pasting in Allahabad and how Charan Singh's rustic wisdom would prevail over the brash Congress. The obsessive preoccupation with the Muslim vote in the Hindi heartland in 1989 and 1991 so dominated media proceedings that an outsider would have nurtured the belief that Muslims are the only community who vote.
I refer to the inglorious history of election reporting in India because over the past few days every Indian with a television set has been subjected to a flood of pseudo-intellectual inanities. Do not be misled by urban voices, we were repeatedly cautioned; the rural voter thinks differently but is less vocal. The NGO hero Digvijay Singh, the pundits said, has sewn up the caste game and will bowl a googly on the last day; the wily Ajit Jogi -- and we all know how wily he is -- knows, it was said, the Adivasi mind better than the BJP Bania and will therefore win the day; and how, it was asked sneeringly, can a chiffon-clad maharani connect with wrinkled rustics? As for Uma Bharti, she was the subject of both intellectual disdain and moral condescension.
To cap it all, the opinion pollsters had decided quite early in the day that this was going to be a 3-1 election and the press clubs were already salivating at the resulting demoralisation within the BJP. To the more ingenuous, 2004 was going to mark the return of some rootless wonder like I K Gujral as prime minister heading some amorphous Third Front. The only unsettled issue, it seemed, was whether such a national disaster would be supported from the outside by the Congress or the BJP.
At the root of these profound insights was a belief that there is nothing called the average voter. Instead, there are disaggregated communities that are incapable of relating to either ideology or the big picture. People, it was insinuated, vote invariably along strict class or caste lines, without concern for the lofty propaganda of the big guns who make appearances in makeshift helipads. The prime minister can talk endlessly about the growing pride in India but, the sceptic asks, how is this relevant to a voter who doesn't even know the meaning of the Internet?
The most remarkable aspect of this celebration of the fragment is that it persists despite repeated evidence to the contrary. Indira Gandhi won famously in 1971 because she offered a new vision; she was decimated six years later because she violated the norms of dharma; and Rajiv prevailed in 1984 because people care about India as a nation. The same patterns are replicated at the state level. Narendra Modi emerged as the folk hero of Gujarat because he articulated a gut Hindu anger; Naveen Patnaik wins election after election despite his poor grasp over Oriya because he is perceived as decent and upright; the same attributes enabled Sheila Dikshit to win Delhi again; and Uma Bharti swept Madhya Pradesh because she expressed the rage against underdevelopment.
In most of these cases, the media by and large got it horribly wrong. When, as the Chinese proverb put it evocatively, the finger was pointing to the moon, the idiot was pointing to the finger. When it comes to assessing the popular mood, it is instructive to consider what Jawaharlal Nehru called the 'silken bond.' There is a fundamental commonality in democratic expression, and that link is forged by the big picture. This is what connects the Gujjar to the Jat and the middle classes to the Adivasis. Yesterday they voted BJP and tomorrow they may well opt for the Congress.
For those who vote as Indians, no party is untouchable; it is the ghettoised analyst who believes in exclusion. India may be an infuriatingly complex society but it is also governed by amazingly simple norms of right and wrong. We can call it anti-incumbency, a function of horribly exaggerated expectations or just a simple vote for change. In the end it amounts to the same thing -- that Indians vote on moral lines. The successful spin doctor or politician is one who can comprehend that notion of dharma. This is what the results of the assembly election just demonstrated.
But don't be fooled into believing that just because it went one way this December it is destined to go the same way next year. History doesn't just happen; it also has to be made to happen.