The main message from election results in five states—and the heavy voter turnout in the first four phases of balloting in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K)—is that it’s a heaven-sent opportunity for the Congress to fix its house before the general election due in April-May 2009. It’s also a wake-up call for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
It’s more or less clear by now that the Congress-led government at the Centre will present a budget in February 2009 and hold the general election on schedule. Sheila Dikshit’s stunning hat-trick in Delhi and the BJP’s upset defeat in Rajasthan have put the Congress on adrenaline, especially since it is the clearest comment on the national mood in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks.
Many will argue that local issues played a key role—in Rajasthan, the presence of 81 rebels, including three supported by the BJP’s parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh; in Delhi the regularization of slum colonies; in Madhya Pradesh, a divided Congress party; and in Chhattisgarh, BJP chief minister Raman Singh’s decision to follow through on promises such as rice for Rs3 per kg. But it is also clear that the Mumbai attacks had a big impact on the Delhi vote and, perhaps, even on Rajasthan.
Tell us how you will deal with terror, the voters seemed to be saying, and we will rise above party politics. Speak up for national unity. Explain how you will deal with terrorist groups, especially if they are supported by Pakistanis who threaten the very idea of India.
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In the face of a shell-shocked Congress and the shameful politicization of terror by the BJP, the voter stood up and spoke out against political divisiveness.
For example, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani, in the last days of the campaign, was so overwhlemed by his own eloquence on the need to hang Afzal Guru, the man accused of masterminding the attacks on Parliament on 13 December, 2001, that he went to the extent of saying, “If Afzal Guru’s name was Anand Mohan or Anand Singh, he would have been hanged by now”. The subtext? Muslims largely vote for the Congress. The Congress-led government was holding out on Guru because he was Muslim.
As for the Congress, you could argue that the schizophrenia within the party—Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took 17 hours to make his first, televised address to the nation, while Congress president Sonia Gandhi made a handful of speeches on the campaign trail in Kashmir and Delhi against terror—was bound to result in a seizure in a time of crisis.
Truth is, in the last five years, as the Prime Minister spent lots of time planning social security and development schemes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and Bharat Nirman, the Congress party pretended that dynasty was the answer to a massive political overhaul across the country.
Under normal circumstances, the disastrous handling of any terror attack on the scale of Mumbai would have resulted in a resounding rejection of the party in power—something the BJP desperately hoped for, which is why it took out all those front-page advertisements in the days immediately after the attacks.
But the Mumbai attacks weren’t run-of-the-mill. The mood in India continues to swing between anger and resentment, which is why the Americans have been forced to put pressure on the Pakistanis to arrest some of the Mumbai terror suspects, including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) chief Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi and Maulana Masood Azhar. Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Hussain Haroon, has now said that the country will freeze the accounts of the Jamaat-ud-Dawah, the political front of the LeT.
In the days since the Mumbai attacks, New Delhi has been taking advantage of the American fear that a possible retaliatory attack by India against terrorist training camps within Pakistan could escalate into a conventional war or, God forbid, even a nuclear engagement. Sooner than later, however, India will have to look within and undertake an overhaul of its own systems of governance. Security and intelligence failures are the most obvious things to fix. The tendency for governments to pass the buck between the Centre and the state (police reforms, for example, are a state subject) is far too common. By dividing the spoils between the Congress and the BJP (Congress three, BJP two, with J&K still to go), good governance and development are naturally on top of the voter’s agenda.
Significantly, though, the bells are also tolling for the major political parties to rise above partisan issues and deal in a focused and united manner on security and terrorism.
Make no mistake, the big voter turnout in each state (including in the first four phases of the J&K elections) is directly in contrast with the candle-lighting brigades in front of India Gate and Gateway of India who despise politics. Here, the voters want their politicians to rethink their divisive agendas and take another look at the goals they serve.
If the goal is to keep India safe and secure, then these voters want much more politics in their lives. The realities of caste, class and gender that supposedly divide India must be fused into a whole that is more than a sum of its parts.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes every week on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org