Of MLAs in lockup & desi-style democracy

Sunanda K Datta Ray

A story doing the rounds during West Bengal’s recent panchayat election had a man asking if his wife had cast her vote. Assured that she had, he mused wistfully: “She died several years ago but polling agents always say she never fails to vote. I turn up every voting day in the hope of meeting her since she obviously returns to earth on this one day!” That’s democracy, Indian style.
The story could have been told of any election in any state in the country. As the Karnataka tamasha confirmed, the deterioration that set in with the 1967 election when Madhya Pradesh legislators were said to have been locked up inside a fort is now the norm.
Today’s state governors are expected to act like chowkidars of the ruling party at the Centre. The leader of a minority party in a state Assembly fails in his duty if he doesn’t offer several crores in cash and ministerial jobs to win over MLAs from across the divide. Legislators, being footloose and fancy free, sell their favours for the highest terms no matter what the anti-defection law stipulates, for laws can’t generate integrity.
An erudite and ingenious Haryana MP once argued that since his party had only three representatives in the Lok Sabha, his crossing the floor was a “split” under Paragraph 3 of the Tenth Schedule, and not defection. He got away with it too, the law being “a ass, a idiot”, itseyes not having been opened by “experience”, as Mr Bumble would say, until the 91st amendment to the Constitution did away with that distinction in 2003. A Rajasthani businessman had once told me that in any lawsuit he was involved in he invested more resources on his adversary’s lawyers than on his own defence. Politics isn’t very different.
Few any longer expect an election to have political meaning in the sense of offering voters a genuine choice. Manifestoes are mainly for the record in a largely illiterate society; common minimum programmes provide the anvil on which bargains are hammered out.
Only the need for ideological differentiation obliges the rank opportunisms pitted against each other to hoist flags of convenience that camouflage personal ambition as public commitment. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s fig leaf of honesty seems somewhat tattered after the party’s shenanigans in Karnataka were exposed. The momentarily victorious Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) partnership’s call of secularism in danger would possibly have been more convincing if it didn’t rely on sectarian strategies like bringing Vokkaligas into a combination of dalits, Muslims and Other Backward Classes, or finding Veerashaiva and Lingayat ministers.Secularism is undoubtedly at risk with gau rakshaks on the rampage, ghar wapsi threatening to become a cottage industry, and advocates of Hindutva undermining the media and academic institutions.
But it is useless to pretend that the battle for Karnataka is over secularism, except in the general sense that any BJP gain is another nail in the secular coffin.
Now that the BJP has been so humiliatingly outwitted, the struggle is over control of the Central government after the 2019 general election.
The spectacle of so many Opposition stalwarts flocking to Bengaluru later this week to applaud H.D. Kumaraswamy, purged of his saffron connection, being sworn in as chief minister, recalls a time when “Indira Hatao, Desh Bachao” was the Opposition’s only mantra. Indira Gandhi called it their “one-point programme”. That is perfectly acceptable since the individual personifies all that is wrong with his or her one-person regime. What is regrettable is that the emphasis is not on content but strategy, not performance, but management. Meghalaya, where the BJP acquired de facto control with only two MLAs out of 60, may have set the trend but it plays to an inherent streak in the Indian psyche that goes back to the Mahabharat.
The age of the wheeler-dealer boasts a hoary lineage. Aswathhama hatha iti Gaja. Or the tale of the samudra manthana, churning of the ocean, and the theft of amrita, the nectar of immortality.
Advertising and public relations would not have been so important in our contemporary life if the ability to cut corners, outsmart rivals and pull a fast one, as the slang has it, hadn’t been so widely admired. Glibness pays.
The victor of the Karnataka coup isn’t the new chief minister. Nor his 85-year-old father whom accident catapulted into the Prime Minister’s chair for 11 months in 1996-97 and who, if reports be true, yearns to get back to it. Nor even Rahul Gandhi, the Prime Minister in waiting. The hero is a 56-year-old Karnataka politician, Doddalahalli Kempegowda Shivakumar. Reputed to be the richest politician in Karnataka and at the heart of various controversies involving land and money, Mr Shivakumar’s strategy brilliantly ensured that the BJP’s machinations did not succeed in winning over any of the 117 Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) MLAs.
No doubt his skills, which were tried out earlier in Maharashtra and Gujarat, will be put to further use in December in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The Gorakhpur and Phulpur byelection victories in Uttar Pradesh, the Telugu Desam Party’s break with the BJP and the Shiv Sena’s notice have whetted the Opposition’s appetite. It is estimated that if its alliance with the JD(S) survives until the general election, the Congress could widen its social base (currently estimated at 57 per cent of voters) sufficiently to capture 23 of Karnataka’s 28 Lok Sabha seats. In fact, the danger is that Mr Kumaraswamy’s chief ministership might encourage regional leaders across the country to throw their hats into the prime ministerial ring. As in 1977, we will again be burdened with more chiefs than Indians, and ample scope for BJP mischief. If democracy had indeed triumphed in Karnataka, Congress and JD(S) legislators would not have had to be locked up in the gilded prison of five-star hotels until the floor test.