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January 19, 1998


Pritish Nandy

One-Day Politics

Elections are curious things. They evoke strong feelings and usually you know months ahead who is likely to win. Yet sometimes, at the last minute, you get a sudden wave that upsets all your calculations. Winners become losers. Losers come in from the cold and sweep the polls, much to everyone's surprise.

This is the natural outcome of free adult franchise and India is quite used to it. The excitement, the upsurge, the huge swell of public opinion. It beats our obsession for movies and cricket. That is why politics is such big business and its television coverage is emerging as the media's top draw. With even entertainment channels like Zee, Star and Sony quietly switching lanes to bring on more news, more current affairs, more live election coverage.

But 86 per cent of India remains glued to Doordarshan. Because that is where the real action is. Coming in uplinked and live. Off the satellites in the sky. Driving all other programmes into total irrelevance. Movies, daily soaps, sitcoms, chat shows, music countdowns. They all take a back seat while the Big Top of Indian politics remains centrestage for two months. Absorbing all the viewership, all the advertising revenues.

Once in every five years. That was the traditional paradigm.

But coalition politics has transformed all this. The paradigm has suddenly changed. The once-in-five-years tamasha is now assuming the instant magic of one-day cricket with governments coming and going every few months. With fresh elections being declared in less than two years and the chattering classes grumbling about its cost to the nation. Because over Rs 15 billion is spent, directly and indirectly every time India goes to vote. Of this, Rs 6 billion is spent by the government alone. The rest is usually spent by big business houses trying to grow their spheres of influence into the political system.

It is actually not the cost the chattering classes are grumbling about. This cost is easily bearable if you compare it to the vast leakages taking place through scams and secret subsidies. They are grumbling because they fear that power is slipping out of their hands. The backwards and the scheduled castes are voting in larger and larger numbers. More and more women are coming out to the booths. The upper castes -- traditionally seen as the intelligentsia -- are actually playing a less and less dominant role in the determining of who will rule India. For better or for worse. Simply because they are outnumbered in most constituencies. Their votes seem to count for less and less as India goes out to vote in absolute larger numbers.

With this change in voting patterns has come a change in voting style. In the rules of the game itself.

The old, leisurely mood of a five-day test is gone. The people no longer find five-year elections thrilling. They want new governments, new leaders every few months who can bring magic and excitement to their lives. Who can redeem the boredom of mindless television and the everyday trauma of reading the newspapers? Where all you get is horror stories about railway accidents, bomb blasts, underworld killings, dowry deaths, languishing stock markets and the falling value of the Indian rupee.

So now you have instant elections. Like instant coffee. Like one-day cricket. Aggressive, instant elections where the players go in for limited overs. Battling for supremacy in what looks like, feels like a completely different game altogether. Quicker, smarter, sexier. Played out in the arc lights before huge television viewership. With big-time sponsors pumping in big-time money to grab a piece of the action, the mindshare.

Thugs and crooks have moved in. Gamblers too. Booth capturing is no more an aberration. It is part of the game. If you do not do it, kiss your chances goodbye. Good men have as much chance of winning an election without getting their hands soiled as they have of getting Demi Moore to bed without taking their clothes off. It is a tough game played by tough guys and the only rule is that you must win. Morals are a liability, an anachronism. Let no one convince you otherwise.

All those who lament the lack of stability, the durability of our governments and prime ministers have failed to realise that this is not an aberration as the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress would like us to believe. The assumption that stability is just round the corner and can be won back the moment India votes a national party into power is completely and totally false. An able prime minister, a stable government, offers the BJP. A party that has ruled India more than 50 years out of 50, argues the Congress, is the only option.

Maybe that is what they sincerely believe. What they would like us to believe. But the Indian people, 50 years into freedom and adult franchise, feel otherwise. They are impatient, chaffing at the reins. They want instant results, quick changes, more frequent elections. They know that power comes to the weak and the poor only when weak regimes have to survive in office. Plus, of course, they want more action. More excitement. More tamasha in their lives.

That is why they have opted for one-day politics just as the world has opted for one-day cricket, whatever the initial reservations may have been. The pace has changed. The rules of the game are different. And, trust me, we will never go back to the past again. There will never again be one-party rule or five-year regimes at the Centre. Except as an aberration.

We must now learn to play and enjoy the game as it comes. Quick, aggressive, dominated more and more by the people of India. It will be a game of numbers; of brute power; of money, television, reach. Frequency too. Where the losers will quickly reassemble in different groups and combinations to make a fresh, renewed bid for power. You cannot wish this away. You cannot even legislate it in a manner that satisfies democratic norms. For power will now inevitably flow down to those who have always been exploited and kept away from the decision-making process for centuries. They will be the new arbiters of our destiny. Yours, mine, the nation's.

The BJP and the Congress are selling a dead dream. Stability.

Who wants stability? Certainly not the weak and the poor. They have never gained from it. Only the Brahminical classes have exploited this yearning for stability, continuance and long-term governance to perpetuate their dominance. The weak and the poor want change. More and more of it. They want instability, even chaos. For this strengthens their role in politics. It empowers them, brings them closer and closer to the centre of authority. Each election has seen them grab a bigger and bigger chunk of political power. Each election has seen them play a bigger and bigger role in sharing it.

That is why it is time to reconcile ourselves to one-day politics. To coalitions. To governments falling every few months. To a new, freestyle politics where power -- like money in a liberal economy -- moves to those who best exploit it. Irrespective of caste, community, traditional bases. We cannot wish this away even if we want to. We can only build in fresh checks and balances to ensure that whatever happens, India stays strong and independent. Politically and economically.

The rest will take its own course whether you and I want it or not.

This means that we will perhaps have an even more fractured Parliament this time. Whoever can put these fractured pieces together will rule India till the pieces fall apart again and we go in for yet another election. Yet another one-day match.

Pritish Nandy

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