In a competitive democracy, every election campaign involves a calculated gamble. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's apparent decision to go along with the rest of the party and settle for a general election some five months ahead of schedule is no different. The ruling BJP, it would seem, has chosen to go to the people for another term on the strength of what stock market analysts describe as sentiment. A decent record of stability and performance and the so-called feel good factor are, of course, at the heart of the re-election bid. In political terms, however, these achievements need symbols. For better or worse, it is an all-powerful media that has rushed in to provide the symbolic meat to the NDA government's 2004 campaign.
Heading the list is the growing euphoria around a Sensex that has risen nearly a thousand points in the period between Diwali and the New Year. And adding to the exuberance is the media hype over Vajpayee's peace initiative with Pakistan. There is no denying that the blend of rapid economic growth and an overall environment of peace and security constitute a heady brew, heady enough for Vajpayee to transform the campaign into a Presidential contest with a predictable outcome. Where Sonia Gandhi is obsessed with cobbling together an anti-BJP coalition and reminding people of the way the then Opposition did business in 1971 and 1984, Vajpayee is busy selling an agenda and conjuring a dream.
The initial impressions, it would be fair to say, are of a horribly unequal encounter. Yet, before the BJP lulls itself into a sense of utmost complacency and start believing that the battle has been won before it has even been joined, it would be instructive to inject a note of caution.
The problem is not with the larger agenda of the NDA and certainly not with its leadership.
The danger lies in the symbolism. It should be apparent to the discerning that stock markets are governed by what the US Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan dubbed 'irrational exuberance.' Translated into ordinary language, it means that the Sensex is only a partial measure of a country's economic fundamentals. The bourses are equally driven by speculators whose business is to make a quick buck. In a market economy that is legitimate. But what is not legitimate is the conduct of those players who short-circuit the system using unfair means. Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh did more than anyone else to puncture the Sensex boom of Manmohan Singh and Yashwant Sinha. In the process, they temporarily shook the faith of the middle classes in the market economy.
The strategists of the BJP should heed the lessons from the past and consciously detach their propaganda from the media hype around the Sensex.
The impressive economic fundamentals of a country like India cannot be gauged solely through the mirror of the stock exchange. What matters to voters are other features such as the Golden Quadrilateral, cheap housing loans, assured electricity supply and the end of the era of shortages. Vajpayee's enduring achievement lies in taking the country a few steps closer to an opportunity society. That, not the curve of the Sensex, is the yardstick for judging his government.
Equally fraught with danger is the mushy sentimentalism that seems to accompany Vajpayee's bid to effect a rapprochement with Pakistan. What the prime minister does or does not achieve during his visit to Islamabad is important. However, it is monstrously stupid to imagine that a neighbour whose existence is premised on unwavering hostility to India and its civilisation is going to have an overnight change of heart. Indians may believe that the future of South Asia will be built on economics and the establishment of a South Asia free trade regime is a step in that direction. But in Pakistan where jihad is a motivating force, this is a minority view that is not shared by the divergent custodians of the Islamic state. There is a naïve Indian view that those across the border are just like us. This may have been true a century ago but the past 50 years has witnessed a revolutionary change in the mindset of Pakistan.
Vajpayee was right to alert the country of this formidable obstacle before he left for Islamabad. Unfortunately, the warning was drowned in another burst of irrational exuberance. Of course Vajpayee was right to interact with General Musharraf and other important Pakistani decision-makers. Anything else would have been plain discourteous and unbecoming of a leader of his stature. Of course he shouldn 't miss out on an important opportunity to engage with the Pakistani establishment. Such moves would not only be courteous but pragmatic. But to believe that the exchange of pleasantries will bring down the level of terrorism is to tempt fate. Pakistan is a signatory to most of the international agreements against terrorism. Has that made the slightest difference to how the Pakistani state operates on the ground?
Pakistan was also a signatory to agreements against the export of nuclear technology. But recent revelations from Iran and Libya make it plain that these agreements were violated with impunity, and with the connivance of the very top echelons of that country's scientific establishment and even the government. Pakistan's explanation that individual scientists had become greedy is an insult to common sense. Is this the country we are supposed to as partner in regional development?
In plain terms, Pakistan has to first establish that it is worthy of the trust that the media peaceniks repose in it. That is why the Islamabad meet could be an important milestone in informing the BJP that those who created the hype aren't necessarily the well-wishers of the party or the even the prime minister. When the need is for a Bismarck, they want to make an I K Gujral of Vajpayee. Some blunt talking, a heavy dose of polite intransigence and sustained pressure, not appeasement, are the order of the day. To win the peace India must first let Pakistan know unambiguously that jihad is no longer a feasible alternative.