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Leadership + Ethics + Vision
November 24, 2003
Historians have repeatedly dwelt on the role of accidents in determining the course of events. This great imponderable, when translated into the Indian political discourse, has come to be viewed more salaciously as conspiracy. The difference, it seems to me, is often more than semantic.
To the armies of the detached, it was a mere accident that a passing crow dropped a suggestive videotape of Dilip Singh Judeo conducting himself a bit too recklessly into the offices of a newspaper which, in turn, passed it to gleeful televisionáchannels. To the infuriated BJP, it smelt more like a sinister conspiracy that was said to bear the unmistakable stamp of the clever Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Ajit Jogi.
Electoral politics, it is said, is all about perception. To cosmopolitan India, overburdened with anger at distasteful politicians, the Judeo tape was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The flamboyant Hindu activist, whose existence only the buffs were hitherto aware of, instantly found a place in the media's chamber of horrors. Within day, Judeo jokes were doing the rounds of the SMS circuit and BJP leaders were taunted with asides of 'partying with a difference.'
Yet, within five days, a different sort of story started emanating from the depths of Chhattisgarh. Media reports suggested with more than a hint of incredulity that far from Judeo being pelted with rotten tomatoes, there was actually widespread sympathy for the ousted minister. He was seen to be the victim of a diabolical plot.
We will know on counting day which perception prevails-the distaste of cosmopolitan India or the sympathy of the less refined. Yet, it is not going to be a simple black-and-white choice.
It is entirely possible that sympathy for Judeo will be coupled with both fear and grudging admiration for Jogi. In that case, the odds should tilt inátheáchief minister's favour. Voters, after all, are known to nurture a fascination for politicians who can exercise power without inhibitions -- the deification of Indira Gandhi stemmed from an admiration of her ruthlessness. Unless that sense of awe gets rapidly transformed into hatred, Judeo will receive the garlands and Jogi will bag the seats.
To win Chhattisgarh, the BJP will have to transform the lament for Judeo into anger against Jogi. It is a daunting task because the chief minister is both ruthless and personable at the same time.
It is because Indian elections are also an extended morality play offering multiple possibilities that pollsters and spin doctors have a hellish time trying figuring out exactly what clicks in the minds of voters.
Of course caste identification and traditional political loyalties matter. But what sways the 10 per cent or so floating voters that constitute the difference between winning and losing is the image of the contenders and what they represent. And image is entirely a function of popular perception. During earlier elections, L K Advani was fond of saying that prior to 1991 the BJP was regarded as the A K Hangal of politics -- the proverbial good man who could never be either nayak or khalnayak.
Image, it would seem, is now paramount. More important, it is getting detached from party labels. Traditional Congress supporters often balk at the idea of Sonia Gandhi as prime minister and end up voting for the BJP during general elections. Likewise, Atal Bihari Vajpayee enjoys a support base far larger than that of the BJP. Conversely, while Advani commands the undying loyalty of BJP supporters, he suffers from an inability to attract incremental support.
Perception is all important. Indian elections both at the national and state levels are getting increasingly presidential. Except where there are formidable local stalwarts who have either to be endorsed or taught a lesson, voters these days don't usually elect MPs and MLAs. They elect a prime minister or a chief minister.
Far from trivialising democracy, the phenomenon has made electoral encounters more riveting. Parties can no longer afford to prey on purely constituency issues; they have to look at the big picture and conjure up a vision. This may be the reason why Madan Lal Khurana, with his undeniable grasp of Delhi's mohalla-level complexities, is suddenly finding the going so tough and is unable to grasp why. He may know, ask people, what is good for Kamala Nagar but does he know what is good for Delhi?
This may also be the reason why Digvijay Singh became vulnerable in Madhya Pradesh after the BJP, through a systematic campaign stretching over the past six months, honed in on the big issue he had made synonymous with himself -- development. Digvijay, it seems, is on the verge of being undoneáby a reputation he has assiduously crafted for himself.
Laloo Prasad Yadav is no danger of that happening. His appeal rests not on performance but on a nebulous commodity called dignity. There is no real difference between him and Mayawati. Yet, precisely because of this neither can hope to have a universal appeal.
So overlook the staged dramas and the dollops of rehearsed entertainment every election provides. India is witnessing a silent transformation of the rules of democratic combat. In this battle of personalities we are also slowly witnessing the emergence of a winning formula -- a judicious amalgam of leadership, ethics and vision.
In the assembly elections, the sober and almost self-effacing Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot may be the biggest beneficiary of this combination. And Jogi may yet defy it. But don't count on it.
There is still a role for passion and for ideology. But these are momentary. As many BJP leaders are at pains to point out, Hindutva assumed a larger-than-life role in Gujarat last year because of the passions generated by the riots. Even Narendra Modi is aware of that. This is why his recent focus is on new investments, power generation and the reconstruction of Kutch. The slogan Vibrant Gujarat will either make him or be his undoing.
If this pattern reproduces itself nationally, it will be Vajpayee's 2004. When you observe his spirited campaign in the four states you can see his soaring comfort level. Regardless of next week's outcome, he has set the agenda for the Lok Sabha polls.