The goonda raj, unleashed in Delhi from 1975, pulled the rug from under the principled politics of the previous three decades. Even the followers of Gandhian turned Socialist, JP Narayan and Lohiya succumbed to achieving ends without giving a thought to the means adopted, assiduously emulated and enhanced the bad practices of the sole national party of the times. This has been the leitmotif of politics since then and we are pretty much “adjusted”, as only an Indian aam admi or aurat can be, to corruption, dodgy political stratagems, nepotism and incompetence.
Is this changing now? Some green shoots of the resurgence of “principle” are visible. Two key reasons are theorized here. First the new electorate is predominantly young. Young people are less influenced by rhetoric and tend to look towards real life models who walk the talk. Jay Panda the young Orissa politician, opposed the criminal bachao ordinance from the start, signaling his committment to principled politics. Modi comes across as another such role model, who reeks strength, effectiveness and moral integrity. The only chink, in his otherwise impregnable armor of personal, meritocratic achievement and state level development, is his ambivalence to the constitutional precept of insulating politics from religion.
Rahul Gandhi, for all his lack of experience and demonstrated competence, has shrewdly latched on to this chink and is hammering in the fact that he is personally and ideologically clean, has no religious preferences or hang ups and recognizes that religion and caste are the two main fault lines which need to be bridged. Rahul’s main chink is his political inheritance, which includes authoritarianism and dynasty (Indira Gandhi) and perceived corruption within his family (most recently the Vadra scam) while Modi has no such “familial” downsides.
Can this dismal choice be fertile ground for the return of principled politics? Neither side will stake Principle above Power. However, symmetric steps on both sides may be agreeable to elevate the coming fight beyond the tired allegations of corruption and religious exclusion and enhance the stature of both leaders.
First, Rahul could publicly renounce his relationship with his compromised brother-in-law, thereby cutting away the latter’s incremental business potential and distancing himself from the dirt. This would also mean that Priyanka remains under wraps during 2014. This “renunciation” of his family would elevate Rahul’s “principle” quotient. In return, Modi should publicly mourn the loss of lives in Godhra and strip dodgy characters away from his kitchen cabinet. Also he should pledge to cut down his fat. Have you noticed that BJP leaders tend to be fatter than Congress leaders and that they have become fatter over the last few years? This middle age spread dates them, in the eyes of the young, as people on the expiry path.
Second, Rahul should announce stricter proprietary norms within the Congress party than those required under the porous Representation of Peoples Act. In return Modi should pledge to give 15% of the BJP 2014 election seats to Muslims as a visible symbol of his commitment to secularism.
Modi loyalists would say that this bargain is better for Rahul. After all Indians are used to corruption and the sacrifice on Rahul’s part is trivial. However this “trivial” concession to propriety on Rahul’s part is accompanied by a very significant step towards cleansing the Congress of corruption.
Rahul loyalists would hold that the shedding of crocodile tears by Modi at election time is no sacrifice at all, since the Muslim sentiment is clearly not with him. However, this seemingly “trivial” concession is accompanied by the granting of BJP tickets to Muslims, in proportion to their population. A very major step for the BJP, towards becoming a secular party, as envisioned by the poet politician, Atalji.
Both sides are right and this is why these are two symmetric, symbolic but significant gestures which can elevate the election environment beyond corruption or religion. The big choice in 2014 is between (a) the BJP model of strong, centralized, executive led, economic growth and infrastructure development, with lower political levels managing social development and protection and (b) the Congress model of a mild central government, relying on pan-national consensus and periodic judicial guidance to push inclusive economic development.
The BJP path promises rapid growth and the reduction of income poverty but comes with the possibility of widening income inequity, the jettisoning of traditional occupations, cultural and social norms, the imposition of higher, change induced stress and social disruption. The Congress path is well known to Indians, as the fine art of muddling through whilst minimizing social disruption and retaining the status quo.
Our young electorate is likely to be quite confused by the choices offered. Jobs with social sacrifices like uniform codes and higher levels of adherence to the rule of law, on the one hand, or the continuation of multi model options on a self-select basis, but highly variable services and life styles across the country and a laid back “soft” State. Most voters are unlikely to be able to make an educated punt. They are likely therefore to go by the political symbols offered to them.
This is where the second reason for a return to principled politics becomes relevant. Voters can very easily detect the lack of sincerity, principle or commitment. It’s all very well for the BJP to shout meritocracy and development for all but how does one explain the antipathy of the minorities (Muslims and Christians) towards them? The Congress extols social inclusion but by “excluding” development, it ends up offering only inclusive mediocrity and poverty. Rahul’s criticism of Behnji would go down better if he becomes “squeaky clean” himself. This is why the proponents of both strategies need to be personally clean and publicly committed, not only to their respective ideologies but also to serving the people of India without favor. Jettisoning their unnecessary historical baggage can refine their respective images, help articulate these distinct strategies and attract a critical mass of supporters.
As Kalaripayattu dancers, gearing up for a fight, Rahul and Modi must limber up and improve their “teeth to tail” ratio. If they fail to do so, the NOTT (Neither Of The Two) vote will accrue to Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP (in Delhi) and state level parties elsewhere, who will then have the privilege of deciding, on behalf of the people of India, who should rule, thereby subjecting Indian democracy to the tyranny of the balancing few.