Having grown up in Sindri (erstwhile Bihar, near Calcutta), reading The Statesman, learning about the Naxal movement and rent-a-protestor cholbé na, cholbeé na (won’t work) politics, I was not surprised when West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee addressed the recent Mahagathbandhan rally in Bangalore thus.
Humse jo takaraega, choor, choor ho jayega. In other words anyone who clashes against us (read me) will be blown to smithereens. I found it rather interesting that Banerjee made that call from Karnataka that returned former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi riding on a similar slogan. In 1978, she contested the Chikmagalur by-election and won. She was back in politics after being banished, imposing the Emergency – India’s darkest political hour that denied civil and political rights, imprisoned thousands, devastated our hard-earned democracy to serve the interests of a now servile, now cunning few. The slogan she rode on was ek sherni sau langoor, Chikmagalur bhai Chickmagalur (one tigress and a hundred monkeys).
It is vital for all politicians to note that 1978 is not 2018. Not one – not one – seat in any Indian election has ever been distributed without taking in caste and class considerations. Not one political party had had the courage to promote talent devoid of the two. The math is to promote the mediocre and the best example of that is the Mahagathbandhan has fallen apart under the weight of its own contradictions, ambitions, greed, power and fear of losing it. There will be re-alignments and much maligning of all and sundry. Eventually, the leaders will align on caste and survival lines. In the run-up to elections 2019, India’s first nationwide approval ratings conducted by Republic show that the governing National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is poised to make a comeback and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is unable to stitch up a sustainable political alliance. The approval ratings are a rolling roll call. Against that background, I have two points to make.
One. Making fun of the remarkably limited Congress Party President Rahul Gandhi is not a political strategy. For now, he is largely irrelevant to the national public discourse and I have often wondered how and why, a person who has faced so much tragedy, continues to expose himself to bullets and worse, ridicule. During the last state elections in Karnataka held earlier this year, a garland was thrown at him and it landed around his neck. If that is not a huge security breach, what is?
No, I really don’t buy his story about how he is willing to sacrifice himself for his country like the rest of his family. Nor do I buy his new love for the poonal (janeu which are sacred threads worn by Brahmins). And his announcement that he has always been a worshipper of Lord Shiva is insincere, if not comic. We, the Indians, deserve better than that so Sir, please spare us the agony. And frankly, I couldn’t care less about which god, goddess, power or universe you revere. I can’t be bothered if you are an agnostic or an atheist. Of little importance to me is what you do in the confines of your home where your religion or absence of it should be. What matters to me is a person’s capacity to lead the world’s largest democracy. Gandhi simply does not have it.
The second point is addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There is no better time than now to say this to him and his team. Listening just to courtiers and echo chambers is a very bad idea for a politician. Remember Hillary Clinton of the United States (US) and Brexit? A small group of people speaking to each other at the same watering holes reassuring each other that the US will soon have a woman President and there’s no way the United Kingdom (UK) would leave the European Union (EU). Complacency cripples thought and action. It is neither a capacity nor confidence builder.
Winning one Lok Sabha seat is a Herculean task and Modi went after each seat in 2014. Now, surrounded by courtiers who say the NDA may lose plus or minus 50 seats, the new data experts are reassuring themselves of their derriere. The clowns including in the NDA (and some minor sabotage is rather visible) have built empires of jesters and parvenus who are behaving in exactly the same manner as the very Lutyens’ circle they pretend to despise. Same parties, same literature festivals, Khan market, same trips around the country, same winks and nudges, Indian International Centre (IIC), same contracts, same hope for crumbs in forms of jobs or grants, India Habitat Centre (IHC) same type of civil society, Bangalore, same type of journalists, mostly. The list is long. Be a little brave on twitter, but not too brave, say a few things here and there but make sure its in jest. Praise others who are out there fighting on the frontline with hash-tags. Yes, social media (SM) is important, but there is as much instant fame on it as there is crushing hubris.
What has never been clear to me – and I have written about it elsewhere – is why and how, a Prime Minister who has built a reputation as a communicator, is increasingly appearing as distant? Why is he talking down to us, we the people of India, instead of with us? These are not good signs. For a Prime Minister who fought on corruption as a major election plank, it is not enough for the troops to say there’s no corruption at the ministerial level in India. Where does the government stand on bringing back the fugitives from Indian justice – people who fled major airports after looting our money? This cops and robbers game is for children.
One of the biggest failures of this government is job creation. Economists – real and faux – will write about it. One of the biggest successes of this government has been the Clean India Campaign. As someone who is deeply interested in public health and follows the issue internationally from the political, trade, developmental, resource mobilisation, implementation, access, and simple awareness raising, I can say this without batting an eyelid. The Swachh Bharat effort has entered the language. That is no small achievement for a country India’s size and diversity. The Ayushman Bharat health programme – the world’s largest public health call - can be a game-changer for India, but there are many questions.
It is important for the Prime Minister to tell us, we the people of India where the resources for this programme are going to come from, how many jobs are being proposed to be created, medicines, access and costs. If fizzy drinks, beer, and chips can be delivered to remote parts of India where there are neither roads nor electricity, why is it difficult to deliver life-saving drugs?
It is time India’s politicians to engage in real discussions of nation and capacity building and stop with ludicrous sloganeering. Lead Mr. Prime Minister. Lead.
*Ajit Ninan, cartoonist, India Today, coined this phrase