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February 2, 1998


Janardan Thakur

This great electoral ballyhoo

Eleven Lok Sabhas in 45 years -- an average life of three years and nine months, and if you consider that six of them had a full span of five years and one of six years (thanks to Indira Gandhi who liked to perpetuate the fifth Lok Sabha forever), the average life of the last four Lok Sabhas works out to just about two years and three months.

We are not cribbing about the financial burden on a poor country and all that; we are only wondering what the harried and harassed man on the street -- who is worried about the next meal or shelter for the night and is called upon every time to use his 'sovereign will' with the utmost care -- thinks of the recurrent jamboree which does nothing to change his lot.

Into which of the hundreds of begging bowls proffered before him does he cast the chit of paper with bizarre symbols? Just until the time of the eighth Lok Sabha election in 1984 the country had 194, repeat 194, parties. A quiz for the most politically aware among you: how many of these parties can you name?

But, really, have you ever wondered what the common man makes of this great electoral ballyhoo? Does it titillate him or does he yawn with ennui? Is he a 'don't know' when it comes to the earth-shaking decision of, say, Sonia Gandhi standing or not contesting from Amethi? Does it make any difference to him whether Suresh Kalmadi (Suresh Kalmadi who, he might well ask) is being supported by Bal Thackeray or not? Does he care, as he puts the tenth or the twelfth stitch on his torn shirt, how many shades of saris the First Widow of India and her comely daughter Ms Vadhra have worn since they began stalking the land with their hand waves and Roman scripted Hindi speeches? Does he care from how many regions of the country or at what cost these saris have come?

Of course, you can recognise the ones from Indira Gandhi's wardrobe. And why not? If Saasji's words can be lifted straight, why can't her election saris be used! But tell me, what does the man on the street make of the kaleidoscopic shifts in alliances day after day, if they make anything of them at all? Has he heard the appeal and the caveats that the President has made?

Regardless of all the caveats from the President and men on high horses, I suspect very little will change as we move from the eleventh to the twelfth House. Come the Ides of March, and we shall witness just another bit of the same kaleidoscope, the same bedlam, the same indecorum, the same flouting of rules, with perhaps a sprinkling of new faces, a bit of change in the order of seating, but then haven't we seen enough of that already?

The French, who have been through even faster quick-change governments, have a wonderful phrase for it: Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose (the more things change, the more they remain the same). Does it really matter whether, instead of the last goateed incumbent in the front corner of the Treasury benches, there is Vajpayee or Mulayam or Kanshi or Madhavrao or the First Widow herself? Would it really matter that Kalmadi would be sitting between the bearded and saffron-robed sadhus of the Sangh Parivar and the Sainiks of the Thackeray brigade instead of sitting between, say, Satish Sharma and Vidya Charan Shukla, that is if they make it there again? And would it really make a difference even if Inder Kumar Gujral really sat where he ought to -- with the Badal and Barnala men -- rather than be torn between Laloo's and Sharad Yadav's MPs?

None of this would make even a wee bit of difference to our man on the street, except that by then he would perhaps be putting the twentieth stitch on his tattered shirt. If I wore a hat I would doff it to him -- the Common Man with the patience of Job.

The Delhi scene, never too good for years and years, has now descended to the lowest depths, and to say that it is a charade is to put it rather mildly. Burlesque would perhaps have been a better word, considering the way the pygmies who have come to rule this country, or rather to ruin it, have been behaving. Inder Kumar Gujral may have been a good man, but he has been a nonstarter and has proved to be a no-gooder. His government is nothing short of humbug. Even the government of his predecessor, H D Deve Gowda now shines in contrast!

But that is besides the point. The heart of the matter is that the whole bunch of faceless leaders who have combined to make a mess of the country is so out of depth, so out of sync with the people, so caught up in petty manoeuvres and machinations, in little games of one-upmanship, that one suspects that there is practically no governance worth the name anywhere. We merely have creatures of circumstances making a hash of the country.

Imagine, for instance, a totally moribund party like the Congress, tied to the apron strings of a dowager empress who would not know which way to look if it came to the crunch, holding the rulers of this great country to ransom. A doddering leader with a pack of followers all tainted and tarred in their own ways, has this great yearning to win back the throne, and every now and then he holds aloft the tattered rag of a lost cause. On what strength? On the strength, or the imagined strength of a widow who has nothing to give to this country, except perhaps more shame and ignominy. And yet, her word, spoken or otherwise, is gospel for the mindless bunch of the so-called leaders who have been rendered so spineless over the years by the Gandhis that they can barely stand on their own. Off with the DMK's head, the lady would say, and they would go brandishing their blunt swords against the government, which in any case is itself in dire straits.

Had it not been for the fear of the Bharatiya Janata Party getting the better of them the ragtag coalition partners would have fallen into a dozen or more pieces by now, and perhaps not one piece would have been recognisable.

We would like to think that the people of this country have grown in their maturity and wisdom with every election. The people must surely be fed up with the kind of shenanigans at various levels in the past few years. They would have to realise that they are themselves largely responsible for the kind of government at the Centre and in many of the states. They would hopefully use the ultimate power that lies in their hands with greater wisdom. Happily the country has a President who can act when he needs to act, and act rightly.


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