Until the Congress President called the Prime Minister a poisonous snake last week, the campaign for Karnataka was on such predictable lines as to become a big fat bore. The BJP offered voters its usual mixture of aggressive Hindutva and that dream of a ‘new India’ that Narendra Modi assures us will soon make India an economic superpower. And, from the Congress Party’s star campaigners, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, came the usual charges of corruption against Modi, the usual promise of freebies and the usual reminders of ‘sacrifices’ made by long gone ancestors.
As I listened to Rahul make reckless promises of free travel and pocket money for Karnataka’s women and Priyanka bang on about her ‘Dadi’, I understood why every time these siblings make a speech Modi gets a few more votes. He is a clever enough politician to know that when an election campaign begins, the best strategy is to pick on your opponents’ weaknesses. So, the gist of nearly every speech he has made is that dynastic democracy ‘parivaarvaad’ is directly linked to corruption because when politicians bring their families into politics it is with personal profit in mind and not public service. Rahul, alas, continues to concentrate on Modi’s strengths. In election after election, he has tried to paint Modi as corrupt and greedy. These are charges that do not stick because whatever Modi’s other flaws, and there are many, nobody seriously believes that he is personally corrupt.
Also read: Fifth column by Tavleen Singh: Squalor and crime in Uttar Pradesh
Why has nobody advised Congress leaders to focus instead on the criminals that fill the ranks of the BJP? How can Modi promise a ‘new India’ when the worst people from that old India continue to thrive? The wrestlers’ protest in Jantar Mantar remained unheard in the highest echelons of the ruling party for so long because the man they charge with sexual exploitation is a ‘baahubali’ from Uttar Pradesh and this makes him more than just an MP.
Ever since that superhit Telugu film called ‘Baahubali’, there is an aura of heroism attached to this word when the ugly truth is that in political terms it means a gangster. Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who heads the Wrestling Federation of India, was not the only gangster in the news last week.
In Bihar, the chief minister who was once called Mr Good Governance (Sushasan Babu) shamelessly tweaked a law that forbade remission to those who murdered public officials, just to release the murderer of a district magistrate. So powerful is this thug that when he was in jail his constituency was saved for him by handing it to his wife. And Anand Mohan Singh’s son adorns the Bihar legislature’s treasury benches.
What makes gangsters so powerful in Indian politics? Simple. They use guns and terror to force people to vote for them. Nitish Kumar should hang his head in shame for releasing a man who incited a mob to kill a high official by tearing him to pieces in public. This murderer certainly did not deserve remission but if you can shorten the sentences of Bilkis Bano’s rapists, who also smashed her baby girl to death, then how can the BJP dare object to what just happened in Bihar?
Modi’s inability to change India’s political culture for the better is one of his biggest failures but this never becomes an election issue because there is not a political leader who can throw the first stone. But there are other failures that can and should be raised. Of these possibly the two biggest are that during his long tenure, when the BJP has ruled most major states, there has been no improvement in government schools. And a statistic that showed up on social media last week says that the only country that has fewer doctors per thousand people than India is Mali. What is the use of boasting about having organised the largest Covid vaccination programme in the world if we cannot give people basic healthcare?
Every state election this year is going to be seen as a rehearsal for the general election that will happen at about this time next year. And as a reckless optimist, I keep hoping that it is real issues like schools and hospitals that will come up. But from the campaign in Karnataka, we can be sure we will be forced to choose in 2024 between those who offer us temples and belligerent religiosity and those who offer us the glory of dead leaders and the stench of dead ideas. Does it really matter who wins Karnataka? Probably not.
Also read: Fifth column by Tavleen Singh: A dying democracy?
What does matter is who wins the general election and those who predict that Narendra Modi will become prime minister again are almost certainly right. He may not have succeeded yet in creating that ‘new India’ he bangs on about but what he has certainly achieved is to sell ordinary people the dream of a prosperous, developed India. It might remain an impossible dream, but a dream is better than offering voters tales of heroism, sacrifice, and glory from a past that was not that heroic or glorious. When voters decide who to vote for, they are more interested in the future than the past and this is something that the Congress Party appears not to have discovered yet. By the time its ruling family decides to change course it could be too late, but it would help if the Congress President minded his language.