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Are we going through an issueless election?

Are we going through an issueless election?

Publication: The Hindu
Date: April 27, 2009
URL: http://www.hindu.com/2009/04/27/stories/2009042755711200.htm

Far from it, says Yogendra Yadav. As the principal area of political contestation has shifted to States, so have major issues

Is this an issueless election? Yes, say the media and the politicians, with a sense of helpless injury. On the face of it, they seem to have a point. Clearly, the present aam aadmi pitch of the Congress does not resonate in the manner that 'G aribi Hatao' did. The question of black money in Swiss banks does not evoke the kind of moral angst that Bofors did. Politicians who passionately debated the Indo-U.S. deal in Parliament have realised this issue has little effect on the masses. The media has tried but failed to make the global meltdown a factor in our politics. And so, the focus on such things as the antics of Varun Gandhi and the endless, fruitless speculation on post-poll alliances.

In the run-up to this election, two issues appeared to be emerging as possible campaign issues. Pre-election polls, including the one conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in January, showed that issues like the Indo-U.S. deal, Hindutva and reservations did not excite the people. These surveys showed that unemployment and price rise were overriding concerns with people cutting across classes. In India 'price rise' is a way of talking about the lack of purchasing power or insufficient income rather than what economists call 'inflation.' But the Opposition reduced this question to inflation. The Centre proved smarter and had ensured that inflation came down to a record low.

National security

The other possible election issue was national security. This has a wider appeal than the Congress was willing to initially grant. The ruling party was on the back foot on this question and the BJP seemed well positioned to exploit it. Yet, the ruling party succeeded in deflecting the issue. It moved closer to the BJP on matters of internal security. On the external dimensions of this question, the Centre knew that the Indian public tends to trust its rulers on foreign policy matters. It used deft, low key diplomatic manoeuvres to diffuse the issue.

There is no nationwide overarching theme in this election. That does not mean there are no issues. As the principal arena of political contestation has shifted to the State level, so have the major issues. The unfolding human tragedy in Sri Lanka is the latest example of one that could have serious implications for this election, but only at the State level. The same could be said of a number of issues that have come up in various States. Statehood or autonomy issues are present in Telangana in Andhra Pradesh, in the Gorkha and Rajbanshi-dominated belt in West Bengal and in the Naga dominated hills of Manipur. Some State-level issues have generated intense feelings and sometimes caused political realignment: Nandigram and Singur in West Bengal, reservations for Marathas in Maharashtra and for Gujjars in Rajasthan, and allegations of caste or communal bias in the functioning of State governments in Haryana, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. Elections have turned into a referendum on the State government in Punjab, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Serious allegations of corruption have put the ruling parties in the dock in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Punjab and Assam, while the issue of public morality works for the ruling parties in Orissa, Rajasthan and Tripura.

Concrete issues

If we get closer to voters, we will find more concrete issues at the constituency level. As and when we read a serious constituency report, a dying genre in Indian journalism, we find a long list of local developmental issues. This would typically include the state of bijli, sadak, pani, the unfulfilled promises of the ruling party, issues of administrative high-handedness, and the economic plight of specific sections of society. These issues are rarely reflected in the national media. But they do influence election outcomes in a big way. In fact, these quotidian issues have an even greater chance of making a difference in those elections, in which real local concerns are not swept away by a national wave.

The absence of an overarching theme does not mean an issueless election. We need not feel regretful about this. It is true that national mega-issues such as Garibi Hatao are ways of highlighting State level and local problems. At the same time, national issues such as Kargil and the assassination of Indira Gandhi tend to displace local issues. On balance, if all politics is local, there is something to be said for political competition taking place around local issues - especially in a country like ours where most States are bigger than many countries in the world.

The problem is that State and local level issues championed by parties are sometimes unconnected to the most significant ground level issues. Take, for example, Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh. Future generations will wonder how democratic India went through this electoral exercise without so much as discussing one of the worst cases of human rights violations. The ruling party as well as its rivals have joined hands in not talking about it. The media has chosen the convenient path of silence. The same can be said about the plunder of natural resources in the mineral-rich States such as Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. The entire political class is a party to this corporate loot and therefore does not wish to talk about it. The Muslim political elite has blocked any discussion about the plight of Pasmanda Muslims. The Dalit and OBC elite refrain from speaking up about sharing benefits of reservation with the most deprived castes within their groupings.

The disconnect

Instead of bemoaning the lack of national issues, we should be worried about this disconnect between real issues on the ground and those that get framed in political contestation. If this is what we mean by issueless elections, then there is a real and serious problem. Once we recognise the problem, we understand who is responsible for this disconnect. Responsible are the media and the political class, which protest the most about issueless elections. Serious problems do not automatically become election issues. They need to be publicised for people to take notice.

The media plays a critical role in setting the agenda for politics, but it has been systematically inattentive to some issues. Partly, this is due to the constraints of satisfying the demands of its consumers. But this is often to do with unrelated things such as cost-cutting drives, the fact that some newspapers are controlled by politicians, and the blatant selling of news space to parties and candidates. Thus, instead of uncovering the real issues and forcing politicians to confront them, the media ends up masking them.

Also, a problem becomes an election issue when political organisations highlight it to create public awareness and offer solutions to it. Most of the major political parties shy away from this difficult task. It is not that their manifestos are silent on these questions. The problem is that political parties do not wish to mobilise people on the basis of them.

Most parties tend to highlight issues that involve the least effort. This reflects a decline in the political imagination and of political judgment.

[Yogendra Yadav is a Senior Fellow, CSDS and Editor of Samayik Varta. Contact: yogendra.election@gmail.com]

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