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Why is the south indifferent to corruption?

April 13, 2011 20:27 IST

Politically, the north and south are different planets, says T V R Shenoy

At 4:30 am. on April 12, 1861 General Pierre G T Beauregard ordered his guns to open fire on Fort Sumter. It was the start of the US Civil War -- which some Americans still call the 'war between the north and the south'.

It is precisely 150 years later as I write (almost to the very hour given the time difference). Is it the eve of another war between north and south -- in India this time -- a conflict of opinion rather than guns?

After many years there was a sense of culture shock when I arrived from New Delhi. Up in the north the tussle between Anna Hazare and the Congress was in its last hours; it dominated conversations in Delhi, everyone having an opinion.

You cannot really disagree on battling corruption of course but there was -- still is -- a lively debate on the tactics employed by 'civil society' and even on whether that 'civil society' truly deserved the name.

It really is a different story once you cross the Vindhyas. I don't mean just Kerala and Tamil Nadu -- both of which have full-blown assembly elections -- but also the rest of the trans-Vindhyan states, namely Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Goa, and Maharashtra. While Anna Hazare's fast was dutifully reported it certainly did not seem to ignite the same passions as in the north.

Yes, there were fairly sizeable candle-light gatherings in Mumbai, and yes, there were smaller ones in Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram.

But I question just how representative any of those were of the actual mood in those states. I could be wrong -- in fact, I hope I am wrong -- but my impression was that all the protesters in Mumbai, Chennai, and Thiruvananthapuram put together did not add up to the numbers watching the first IPL match at the Chepauk stadium in Chennai.

The situation in Maharashtra -- Hazare's home -- was best summed up by the crusader himself. Asked why he himself did not stand for elections the brutally honest response was that he would not just lose, he was sure to lose his security deposit. This was not a one-off quip, Hazare repeated the point in at least three separate interviews.

The situation in neighbouring Goa is epitomised by the strange case of Atanasio Monserrate, the state's education minister. He was caught at customs in Mumbai with some crazy amount of money -- up to Rs 25 lakh worth -- in foreign and Indian currency. Monserrate is still a member of the Goa ministry, he is still a free man, and nobody in his party seems terribly concerned.

To be fair to the Congress leaders let us remember that news of the Monserrate case broke almost simultaneously with Hazare's fast, not to mention campaigning in assembly elections in West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry. But why -- the usual protests by the opposition apart -- is there no groundswell of protest at least in Goa?
There are a few by-elections taking place in some states. This set includes the Chennapatna, Jagalur, and Bangarapet assembly constituencies in Karnataka, a state where charges of corruption are being flung every which way by political parties. But is corruption actually an issue in the by-elections?

The list of by-elections also includes two seats in Andhra Pradesh, namely the Kadapa Lok Sabha constituency and the Pulivendla assembly constituency. Once again, it is anybody's guess whether Hazare's campaign will have an effect on these polls.

As I said above this dichotomy -- the fervour in the north, the lack of passion in the south -- is something that I am seeing after a very long time. The first time was in the wake of the Emergency when north India burned to revive parliamentary democracy, and the second was in 1989 when corruption was the issue of the day in the north. How did
the south react on both occasions?

The numbers tell the tale. The Congress was almost wiped out from the Hindi belt in 1977, with only Nagaur in Rajasthan and Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh to call its own. But Indira Gandhi's party simultaneously won 41 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Andhra Pradesh, 26 of the 28 in Karnataka, 14 of the 39 in Tamil Nadu, and 11 of the 20 in Kerala. It held its own in Maharashtra, taking 20 of the state's 48 seats, and added a seat from tiny Goa too.

[The Congress might have won a majority of the seats in Maharashtra too if it weren't for the urban voters. Six seats in Mumbai fell to the Janata Party, as did Pune. This time too I suspect that Anna Hazare's fast carried greatest resonance in precisely the same areas.]

Twelve years later the Rajiv Gandhi government was swept out of office after V P Singh's crusade against corruption. But the Congress recovered to fight another day thanks to the sweeping support of the south.

Rajiv Gandhi's party won 39 seats in Andhra Pradesh, 27 in Karnataka, 27 in Tamil Nadu, and 14 in Kerala. It bettered its 1977 record in Maharashtra, winning 28 seats, and won a seat from Goa too.

You can understand variations in other years, those in which there was no over-arching issue, but how do you explain these? But every Indian who went to the voting booth in 1977 knew that Indian democracy was at stake. That was clear to illiterate voters in remote villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, unconnected to the electric grid and barely connected by road. How could the issue be unknown in the states across the Vindhyas, whose voters were much more in the know?

Again, what happened in 1989? Why did corruption never become as big an issue in the south as it did in the north?

I don't think we will ever have a clear answer to the mysterious voting patterns of 1977 and 1989. But, looking ahead, how might they affect the ongoing campaign against corruption and misgovernment?

There are already whispers in Delhi that a lot of Congressmen believe that the party gave in too easily to Hazare. (And during that earlier fast too, K. Chandrashekhar Rao's campaign for Telangana.)

Could the Congress be emboldened by its own history, standing firm on the rock of an impassive south until the flames of the north are quenched by the waters of disheartenment?

Perhaps the south is simply more comfortable with authoritarianism, giving the power elite more leeway? Thus Vijayakanth can slap his own candidate in Dharmapuri, Shankar Rao, the Andhra Pradesh textiles minister publicly slaps his assistant for letting a phone ring, and Y S Vivekananda Reddy goes so far as to assault opposition MLAs in the assembly itself.

April 12 is also the anniversary of another momentous event, the day in 1961 when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to let slip the bonds of Earth. Today no Indian needs a space rocket to visit another world; all you have to do is to cross the Vindhyas. From a political perspective the north and the south are different planets!

T V R Shenoy