The great game of ‘elections’ 

What we are witnessing is the unravelling of the Indian State. The central government perpetually seems to be in election mode and the PM is sparing ever lesser time on critical issues 

Getty images
Getty images

Mrinal Pande

After seven decades of Independence, elections in India seem to have assumed the form of a great seasonal game. Even the media repeatedly use analogies drawn from the world of games: from chess, dominoes, boxing and of course, cricket.

Implicit in the terminologies associated with winning, losing and strategising against rivals, however, is  the tacit assumption that the games would be played on a level playing field, that all players would follow a clearly spelt out set of rules with which all players, managers and referees would be in agreement.

Whatever the game, howsoever intense the rivalry, no one would hurl the ball out of play, walk off with the stumps, let the captain overrule the referee or hit others below the belt. But while elections have emerged as the ‘Great Game’, looking at news reports coming in first from Uttar Pradesh and now from Karnataka, it is disturbingly clear that the rules related to the ‘games’ no longer apply to our elections. They have truly turned into a free-forall mud bath.

As they address election rallies, the tallest of political leaders can be seen heckling and lampooning their rivals in language that is better suited to the gutter. They mimic rivals and enact a pantomime like clowns to ridicule not themselves but their political rivals and work the people to a frenzy and ensure derisive laughter from their audience.

If anybody had any doubt that ‘it is not cricket’ and elections are no longer games played according to old and accepted rules, they were dispelled by a former chief minister of Karnataka. When asked about the BJP putting up Reddy brothers as candidates in Karnataka, the former Chief Minister was quoted as saying, “nobody is bothered about(it) in Karnataka…. nobody should object if somebody campaigns for the party. In politics all these things happen.

In the election arena you have to win.” In the ‘winner takes all’ sweepstake, winnability clearly outscores ethics, morality and fair play Depressingly, even as the election campaign peaked in Karnataka, the north of the Vindhyas was convulsed by clashes over cows, prayers (Namaz) in public places, historical monuments and even over a portrait of Jinnah in Aligarh dating back to pre-independence days.

At the same time down South in Karnataka, the election campaign touched a new low with the ‘leader’ raving, ranting and confusing loyalty of dogs and the obedience of Mudhol hounds with patriotism. Elections in UP a little over a year ago, were truly an earthshaking event and revealed deep and hitherto papered over socio religious divides in that vast and heavily populated state.

But instead of bridging the divide or even glossing over the divisions, rather than promote better understanding between communities and more communication among them, leaders have cynically been exploiting fresh faultlines over caste, community, language, water sharing between states and even the administration of justice to serve narrow and short term political ends. Make no mistake.

This new and nasty trend in which stone pelting in Kashmiris used cynically to incite Hindus in Kanyakumari and a portrait of Jinnah is used as a pretext to storm into a university campus in a bid to attack India’s former Vice President, who was there on a visit, is bound to boomerang. It will of course hurt and harm everyone else in the short run. But in the long run it is unlikely to spare even those who have stoked the trend and benefitted from it. What we are witnessing is the unravelling of the Indian State. With the central government perpetually in election-mode and the Prime Minister sparing less time on critical issues and more on bad mouthing political rivals and addressing election rallies, both Centre and the states seem to have become weaker.

It is time to worry when public discourse avoids addressing crimes against women and minorities, issues related to health, education and infant mortality.

The social and ecological challenges facing the states are eroding the authority of the leadership in these states, most of them ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party. But instead of uniting the nation, strengthening the states and addressing issues of critical concern, all that the ruling party and the Government have managed is to weaken the country.

It is highly improbable that Modinomics, which was sold off like hot cake to the electorate as the BJP won one state after the other, could come to the rescue this time around. To top it all, India finds itself leaning on a rather unpredictable ally in the United States and pitted against a seemingly benign enemy in China.

It was easy to do Bollywood style road shows about Achhe Din and soak in the applause for New India from NRIs and global Tech giants. But in the chaotic post-Brexit world of 2018, with outsourcing slowing down and jobs trickling, H-1B visa cut backs and Trump and Xi waiting to see who blinks first, it is time our leaders spent some time to understand the tectonic changes taking place in the domestic marketplace and globally.  The leadership needs to anticipate the grave consequences they invite by widening faultlines.

The ruling coalition’s assumption, which is the dominant assumption in India today, is that a majority of Indians will again vote for them in 2019 as Hindus supporting a pro-Hindutva Sarkar. But human behavior is not always so simple or follow predictable   lines. What is more, the regressive and sectarian politics of violence and hatred is beginning to fetch diminishing returns in the northern states. State governments in the southern states have been more stable and robust.

But as NTR, Jayalalithaa or the DMK have shown, the southern states too can be vulnerable to sectarian politics. The ruling coalition is obviously hopeful that attempts by forces of Hindutva to drive their agenda in the south of the Vindhyas  would succeed and help make up the ground it may lose or may have already lost in the north.

But it is entirely possible that some new, entirely unexpected coalition may surface and make prospects of the opposition for the 2019 general election a good deal better than they seem now.

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