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A Time of Reckoning
|by Melanie Priya Kumar|
It's the time of reckoning for politicians in India and the season for the Indian electorate to be wooed by all political parties. With elections to the 14th Lok Sabha around the corner, the Indian voter is being made to feel very important and rightly so. Actually the party for the Indian public has already started with the governments, both at the centre and in the states going to the polls, doling out sops, in their pre-election budgets. Somewhat unfair to the opposition but an election gimmick that every ruling party across the world has indulged and continues to indulge in!
As the day of reckoning draws closer and electioneering reaches frenzied levels, the voting public has started to witness a great deal of mud-slinging and name-calling, as the major parties try to hit at what they imagine to be their rivals' weak points. It is a strange kind of strategy that was ushered in during the last century (where you talk more about the rival's weaknesses rather than your own strengths), and one that has assumed vicious proportions in the last few elections. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has banned offensive political ads on television channels or it would have been a great deal worse.
The BJP's spokesperson, Pramod Mahajan, was the first to admit that Sonia Gandhi's Italian origins and an appeal to the Indian asmita (sense of pride) will be focused upon in the BJP's campaign. But it appears as if he overstepped the limit when he ridiculed the entry of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi into politics saying that only s/he who has both parents Indian is qualified to contest elections in India. Advani, during his Rath Yatra, has said that questioning Sonia's occupying the highest office in the land was not a personal attack but a political issue and Mr. Vajpayee has also fired his first salvo in this matter in an election speech.
One would then like to ask the BJP their objective in holding get-togethers like the Pravasi Divas for non-resident Indians from all over the world. Several of these Indians were honored by the BJP for their achievements in their countries of residence and many sops were offered to them including dual citizenship. If the Pope or the Italian government were to honor Sonia similarly, the loudest protests would probably emanate from the same camp that has no problems with honoring Indians who are minorities in other countries.
When Bobby Jindal contested for the post of the Governor of Louisiana, the whole of India, including the government-owned television network, Doordarshan, focused on the election as if it were something taking place in the Indian backyard rather than in America. Wonder if those rooting for Jindal knew of his right-wing leanings and his pledging of support to George Bush's wars against Afghanistan and Iraq? Similarly, when V.S. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize, there was much jubilation both in government circles and outside, for a man who has never lived here and has always expressed his sense of alienation with regard to India. (Recently Naipaul has been sighted at BJP platforms and stated that the country has moved from being a wounded civilization to a Shining India under the stewardship of the BJP' as if the Indian electorate was in need of this endorsement!). When Mahendra Chaudhuri headed the government in Fiji, India lauded his achievement and Mr. Vajpayee's government was the first to express its unhappiness when he was removed in a coupe. If the country is proud of its ethnic minorities making it big in other countries, it is only right to extend the same courtesy to minorities and foreigners who have accepted Indian citizenship. There cannot be two irreconcilable standards here.
If the BJP is attacking the Congress on its dynastic tradition, it would be very interesting to know from them their reasons for admitting a portion of the same dynasty namely Maneka and Feroz Varun Gandhi into the party with such a great deal of fanfare. It is bad enough to witness the sycophancy in the Congress without having the BJP follow suit!
If the issue of Sonia Gandhi has to come up, let it be with regard to her political inexperience or her lack of confidence. But, it seems somewhat unfair to attack her on the issue of her origins. Is it a disqualification for a woman to make the home of her beloved husband her own home? There is a Biblical quote about Ruth who tells her husband: Wherever you go, I will go with you. Your people are my people. Your God is my God. Sonia known to be a practicing Catholic might well be following the dictates of her heart or her religion. In a country like India where a woman is expected to leave her home when she marries, and is watched and praised most for her ability to integrate into her husband's family, Sonia's efforts at dressing and speaking like the locals and opting for a Hindu wedding for her daughter should actually have been appreciated. And to say that her children are not Indian, is only adding insult to injury. Wouldn't it be a shock for the BJP if India's young electorate (the youngest in the world as of now) of 54% below the age of 25, were to decide to dump the old warhorses in favor of young, untainted candidates like Priyanka and Rahul? As it is, with Rahul making his intention to contest from Amethi very clear, the BJP has been closely watching Priyanka's move to pit one of its star candidates against her. Again unexplainable from a party that is said to be oozing with confidence about garnering votes because of its achievements of the past five years!
As for the Grand Old Party, the Congress, which is dithering over naming its Prime Ministerial candidate, this is a fitting time for members of the party to forget their infighting and offer an appealing alternative to Mr. Vajpayee who on account of party pressures, has often been forced to switch from talking about secularism and forging peace with Pakistan to playing the communal card.
The BJP's manifesto, significantly released on Ram Navami day, looks reasonably secular but the party is never able to speak with one voice. There is Advani who in the course of his Rath Yatra talks of Hindu-Muslim unity in one breath and indulges in the Ayodhya temple rhetoric in another. Also, a certain Narendra Modi who has started his campaign deliberately from the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi and taken pot shots at Begum Sahiba (Sonia Gandhi) and bracketed her with Miyan Musharraf. He has made it worse by launching very personal attacks on Sonia and Rahul and it is shocking and frightening to think this man was able to get a resounding mandate for a second term after the carnage in Gujarat. India, known and admired across the world for its pluralistic culture stands to lose greatly if this kind of rabblerousing is allowed to spread. If the BJP is serious about its secular projections, they have to exercise control over their party members and keep the right-wingers at bay. The British thrived on the divide and rule policy but it would be a terrible shame for a multi-cultural, multi-religious society like India to be factionalized by its own leaders who really ought to know better.
The Congress Party also has its own share of skeletons, the worst being the massacre of the Sikhs in Delhi after the assassination of Mrs Gandhi in 1984. Most of the politicians involved in these riots were acquitted of the charges (just like the people in power in Gujarat today) resulting in the rise in Sikh militancy' many of them comprising young lads who had seen their parents killed during the Delhi riots.
The much talked about third front has turned out to be a non-starter with the two Janata parties staying disunited and one of them agreeing to form an alliance with the BJP. Then there is the well-known liquor baron, who is said to have employed questionable means to get into the Rajya Sabha, speaking of values and the need to infuse young blood into politics through his version of the Janata Party. After making his billions on products that might have driven hundreds of families to despair, ill health and breaking point, this is perhaps his way of doing prayaschit (penance)! And if the voting public is left wondering about its choices, one thing is for sure, with at least half of the electorate still being angootha chaap (illiterate), the election will finally be won by the party which is able to appeal to sentiments and emotions the best.
But whatever the cynicism over politicians, vote one must to exercise a democratic right. At a civil society meeting in Bangalore, an IIM Professor, Dr. Trilochan Shastri, well known for his extensive campaigning on voter rights, stressed on the importance of maintaining vigilance with regard to the records of those contesting the polls. Mr. Jayprakash Narayan (an IAS officer from Andhra Pradesh, who stepped out of the services to work on civil rights issues) brought in a note of optimism when he said that Indian democracy was improving with each election and it was the responsibility of every voter to demand and choose candidates with clean records, thereby sending a message to party leaders when it came to the question of disbursing party tickets. Living in a hard-won democracy is something to celebrate and in the words of Asma Jehangir, a Pakistani human rights activist: The most flawed of democracies is preferable to the most benign of dictatorships.
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01/07/2012 11:39 AM