ROUGH & TUMBLE - Patricia Mukhim
It is therefore enlightening that the Madras High Court should rule on Wednesday that political parties should be prohibited from making election promises that are capable of adding burden on the public exchequer. The Supreme Court had come out with this ruling in 2013 but obviously neither political parties nor the Election Commission have taken the SC directives seriously.
Alasting image of the election campaign in Assam is that of Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma’s unmasked face inside a vehicle speaking to a masked journalist. The conversation between the two would have been fit for a comic strip if it was not a serious issue of Covid. The journalist asks Himanta why he is not wearing a mask. Himanta counters saying there is no Covid in Assam so why should he wear a mask. The journalist asks him a second and a third time if there is no Covid in Assam. Himanta says there is no Covid in Assam today. Now what happens if there is another Covid surge post election and if that is related to the large crowds that have been allowed to gather and see Himanta ‘perform’ on stage and the crowds that have been cheering PM Modi during his many visits to Assam?
The problem with politics is that those who join it become larger than life figures and they influence others to emulate them. But having observed politics and politicians over decades, one concludes that successful politicians are in fact insecure and intimidated men even if they seem overly confident on stage. They advance politically only because they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle or otherwise manage to manipulate the demanding and threatening elements in their constituencies. At the end of the day the politician’s only wish is to win the elections and return to power – not because he/she wants to serve but to be served for the next five years. Period! That we the people expect them to govern and govern well is an idealism we should get rid of sooner than later.
As an observer of the election campaign in Bengal and Assam (over television of course, since physical movement is restricted these days), one gets the feeling that the language, meaning and metaphor of elections have deteriorated irretrievably. Gender, language, religion, ethnicity, class, caste have all been pressed into the political mill and what comes out is hate and venom that is hardened into stiff ideological stances that admit no flexibility at all. We have all been put through the crucible and we come out of it not as humans but a people divided by too many strands of political thought. The manner in which Prime Minister Modi makes those cat calls of “Didi… oh…Didi,” is actually provocative and insidious and is intended to trigger anger in Mamata Banerjee so that she too comes up with singularly noxious phrases for Modi. Do election campaigns have to plumb such ugly depths? This is where gender and politics intersect and makes it difficult for women who are unused to being ridiculed to jump into the electoral fray. Very few women have the thick hide that Mamata Banerjee has and she is capable of giving back in the same coin every barb launched at her. Politics today has sunk to the level where tolerance for triviality, artifice and nonsense has become a qualification for every aspiring politician.
Mamata Banerjee is not without faults and those fault lines need to be highlighted on political platforms but not by pulling ugly, verbal punches. These are the new lows in India’s political journey. Also, never before has the Prime Minister and Home Minister had to campaign in election-bound States, leaving the task of governing the country to the bureaucracy. Truly this is unprecedented. If indeed, there was good governance for the last five years in all the poll-bound states, would the sitting MLAs and those in government need to lose so much sleep in the month-long campaign? But then that’s the character of the voting public in India. They are accustomed to listening to distant, unfamiliar and complex things being communicated from a pedestal. Most of those who listen can’t figure out the meaning of the double entendre used. It is here that truth suffers a considerable and often radical distortion. The complex is made to sound simple; what is hypothetical becomes dogmatic and what’s relative is turned into an absolute truth by the sheer force of rhetoric.
Bengal which at one time used to be the repository of intellectual discourses that were recognized by the world when it awarded Tagore the Nobel Prize has now turned into a State with garrulous people, each one trying to outdo the other in political callisthenics. During the Left-ruled regime, people complained that its rulers wanted Bengal to be, as Swapan Dasgupta cryptically defines, “an island of enlightened backwardness”. This pushed the intellectuals to revolt against the CPM. Then came Mamata Banerjee into this rather murky scenario and she too let loose her own style of nepotism by adopting the cadres that had abandoned the CPM to join her party the TMC. In Bengal its rhetoric over governance and electoral promises that often remain unfulfilled.
It is therefore enlightening that the Madras High Court should rule on Wednesday that political parties should be prohibited from making election promises that are capable of adding burden on the public exchequer. The Supreme Court had come out with this ruling in 2013 but obviously neither political parties nor the Election Commission have taken the SC directives seriously. The Madras High Court asked whether the Central Government has taken any steps to bring legislation covering the issue of political manifestos, especially freebies promised therein and governing the political parties as per the judgment of the Supreme Court in the case of S Subramaniam v. State of Tamil Nadu and Others reported in (2013) 9 SCC 659.
The Madras High Court further enquired in how many elections the Election Commission has vetted the election manifestos of the political parties as per the dictum of the Supreme Court and which political parties have submitted their election manifesto for vetting after 2014 and what are the actions taken against those political parties, which have not followed the Supreme Court dictum to tender the manifestos for vetting? If the apex court takes this seriously and the respective High Courts too follow up on implementation of the 2013 ruling, there would be less chances of political parties promising the moon (something which they perhaps do not even intend to fulfil) and failing to deliver thereby leaving people more frustrated and bitter and also sceptical of democracy and its promises.
The problem of India is that the ignorant masses are today voting for money and no amount of convincing can change their minds. No wonder the BJP realizes it needs those electoral bonds. Those capable of reason have turned ideological slaves and there are too few in-between to be able to make a difference. India also has the dubious distinction of having the highest number of poor in the world and also the largest middle-class. Not much has changed since 2014 when much was promised. Only the profiles of those making the promises have changed.
We have elections once in five years because we have to have elections. That’s it! The status of many remains what it was five, 10 or 15 years ago. Yet we invest so much in this once-in-five-years circus.