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March 7, 1998


Dilip D'Souza

Two Cheers For Instability

I've been letting the days since the elections and the results go by in a kind of stupor. That's because I keep wondering exactly what I can write about the whole affair that will not seem farcical by the time you read it. Which, given the surprises and fluidity of events, seemed like a distinct possibility these several days. It's Thursday morning now, and for the first time since the results began tumbling out, things political look like they will not be drastically different 24 hours from now.

Of course, I could be wrong. Let me know after you read this.

Above all, this was a largely satisfying election. Let me qualify that: it was satisfying as far as an election can be in which parties, again, paid no attention to the always neglected real issues. Education, health, water, cleanliness, sanitation, little things like that. But with that rider, I think the election turned out well for two reasons. One: it was a slap in the face of nearly every party that fought in it. Nothing could give me a greater thrill. Two: the divided results reflected the country's persuasions far better than any single party could, or understood.

Yes, there is simply no collective tick mark for any party. Arguably, that is the way it has been since 1947, but today it's even more true than it used to be. By the million, voters are saying "No!" and hoping somebody will listen. Now I have not seen precise vote percentage figures yet. But it looks like two of every three of us who voted said no to the BJP and its ragtag bunch of hangers-on. Three of every four turned down the Congress and its ragtag bunch. Four of every five thumbed their noses at that last ragtag bunch, the sometimes United Front. Only diehard-in-the-bull fans of these parties might find things to crow about in a rejection as profound as this.

Them, and me. I'm finding several reasons to crow. Though I have to admit that I'm ambivalent about them. In almost every case, the cause is decidedly double-edged.

In Haryana, that menace of the Emergency, Bansi Lal, got some fine what-for, which was good. Trouble is, it came from the menace of Meham, Om Prakash Chautala. In Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi got a wake-up call he needs badly. Only, it came from The Caped Woman, Jayalalitha, eager to dodge the various cases against her; it also kept intact the hoary Tamil Nadu tradition of swinging wildly from one party to the other with every election. In Maharashtra, the cells in Thackeray's remote control ran decisively out of juice, someone be praised. Of course, the man responsible was the Great Manipulator with much to answer for for the 1992-93 riots, Sharad Pawar.

So it went, across the country, and on larger canvases too. The BJP learned that people want just a little more than -- and might even be fed up by -- temples and assurances that destroying more mosques "is not on our agenda for the time being." The Congress was told that even the promise -- "threat" is more like the word I want here -- of bringing back that beloved Dynasty wasn't enough to bring back the votes. The Front found that just calling themselves United doesn't make them so, and that sticks hard in throats that vote.

Those were the lessons, for those who want to take them.

There is one more lesson, and it has a number of different dimensions. The one term that best describes the vote -- diverse, let's say -- also best describes the voters. There are dozens of different political leanings across the country and they have found expression in the 12th Lok Sabha. Now there were the holier-than-thou calls for "stability". You must have heard them. They were really no more than a respectable way to say "please, please, please give us more than 272 seats." But if we voters have chosen anything at all -- besides the chance to say "No" so firmly -- it is wide representation, not this mythical stability.

I'll admit again: I feel mixed emotions at this choice.

On one hand, we have this diversity in the Lok Sabha precisely because of the tactics every party adopts so easily. We are asked to vote on caste, religious, wealth, linguistic and many other lines, goaded into suspicion and hatred across them. We are encouraged to look at ourselves in smaller and smaller terms. We are sons of the soil and they are not, but it's just this grubby little bit of soil below our feet we should think about. We must care about nothing broader and more encompassing than that. The result of all this is clear. Divisive politics bring you a divided polity: that's what we see today. The parties that complain about that, who wanted a majority of votes, a majority of seats, a clear mandate to rule -- they are just being hypocrites, no more. They are the ones who have pursued this kind of line for long enough.

On the other hand, there is nothing in our Independent history to make us believe that a stable government equals good governance. In fact, stability has always brought with it a reluctance to tackle problems, a complacent slide into decay, damage and destruction, a trampling on rights and justice. If that's stability, give me instability any day. Today, give me the representation I believe the seat counts mean.

The seat counts raise the question: who is going to run the government? The days when one party could do so on its own are history, and that's the way it should be. For the time being, some kind of coalition will govern. Actually, I don't really care which it is, because there is much to like in the idea of a coalition.

They mean representation, to start with. More parties and so more people will have a voice in governing. One party rule has invariably meant that well below half the electorate sees its choice of government in power. A coalition will reverse that. But because a coalition, these days, is likely to have only a small majority of seats, it will also retain an interest in being effective, in producing results.

And the best thing about a coalition may be that it tends to rub off the extreme fringes. So if a BJP-led coalition comes to power, its smaller partners will ensure that the BJP drops the dark shadow of lunacy it has been in bed with for these years: the sick rhetoric of the Rithambaras and Katiyars and Thackerays, the urge to hate, the obsession with temples. If it is a Congress-UF government, we can expect some reining in of Mulayam's goons, perhaps action against Congress thugs like H K L Bhagat and Sajjan Kumar for their crimes in the Sikh massacre in 1984...

I'm teetering, I know, on the edge of mere wishful thinking. Time to call an end to the pontificating.

So if I had to pick the two things about this election that made me most happy, what would they be?

First, that Thackeray and his Shiv Sena got thumped. Even if their actual vote numbers did not decline, as the supremo blusters today, more people thumbed the Sena down than up. So much for the glory of Shivshahi: its denizens, like other Indians, turn out to want more than words.

Second, that the BJP got thumped in UP's Faizabad constituency. Why is this such a joy? Because Ayodhya is located in that constituency. Where the temple's appeal should have counted most of all, people are telling the BJP: enough of temples and mosques, put something better on the menu or get lost.

If nothing else of note happened in the election, these two would be enough. Enough to drag me out of my stupor, anyway. I'm gloating, and it feels good!

Dilip D'Souza

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