Thursday, Dec 11, 2003
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By Harish Khare
LAST WEEK'S most enduring images came from Raipur: the BJP leaders' press conference, unloading the Jogi tape contents. Of these perhaps the most enduring was the expression of satisfaction on the face of the Law Minister of India. A man who is guardian of lawful conduct was pleased as punch over the success of a sting operation. Since then we have also learnt that the country's Deputy Prime Minister was also a party to this legally dubious operation. So much for su-raaj.
Since the BJP has won comprehensively in three out of four States, its leadership feels entitled to impose its definition of political fairness on the country, to the disadvantage of its rivals. Just when the voters in Chhattisgarh had rejected him, the BJP national leadership has no moral ambivalence in doing to Ajit Jogi what he had done to the BJP in the Judev affair. Contrast this with the BJP's moral equivocation and technical pettifogging when it came to another "sting" against Mr. Judev. The nobility of the man's mission (re-conversion of the tribal Christians back to the Hindu fold) was deemed so morally superior that no legal questions are to be raised about his bribe-taking activities.
The BJP and its political rivals are competent enough to battle out the relative immorality of the Judev affair vis-à-vis the Jogi tape caper. The Opposition is also quite capable of asking how the Central Ministers can be seen as providing political and moral comfort to those who have been indicted by a due process of law. The Central Ministers are under oath to uphold the Constitution, yet any number of Mr. Vajpayee's colleagues have behaved as if the judicial system gets "rigged" when it comes to the NDA's political rivals. This inspired de-legitimisation of constitutional processes is perhaps built-into the much-touted coalition dharma.
Still, there is a larger question: will this "sting" option be the new fix of our political class? Are we going to witness a new phase of seediness in our political leaders' imagination? Are we going to be treated to a display of political party-inspired display of misfeasance and malfeasance, all under the omnibus plea that all is fair during the election time? As it is, there is always a temptation for any government to use the coercive instruments like the Intelligence Bureau, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate against rivals. To be fair, the BJP is not the first government to give in to this temptation; let us just recall that the unworthy tradition began, if not earlier, with the St. Kitts forgery.
If the "sting" option and the concomitant departure from public decency get hold of our political class' imagination, this can be attributed to two factors. First and the more substantial of the two factors is the irreversible de-ideologisation of party politics. In the recently held elections, there were no grand, defining differences between the BJP and the Congress sales pitches. Both the parties promised to do more of the same and accused the other of doing less of the same. Both sang the same "development" theme song, if in different tunes and to different music. The voters chose to believe the BJP's propaganda in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, whereas the voters in Delhi thought Ms. Sheila Dikshit had done enough "development" to deserve a second term.
The Congress, on its part, did not try to project itself as party of the poor and the marginalised; it did not speak out as if it was concerned about the creeping economic and social inequalities; nor did it promise to correct these imbalances. At no time did the Congress project itself as an ideological rival to the BJP. The animosity that the Congress feels towards the BJP is partly a matter of historical habit and partly on account of its dynastic leadership; otherwise, the Congressmen and the BJP leaders can be easily interchanged and no one will be able to tell the difference. The Congress no longer knows what it stands for; it only knows that it stands reduced as a family outfit.
The BJP too conducted these elections as if it was not a party tied to the RSS apron strings. Like the Congress, the BJP too is on the verge of irretrievable ideological confusion. If Mr. Vajpayee stays around for another five years, it is possible that he may be able to transform the BJP into a de-communalised political organisation. As long as he is round, he is going to ensure that the BJP travels on the path of the middleclass-centric "development". There is no clash of grand visions; Ms. Sonia Gandhi has no vision other than the restoration of the dynasty's glory, whereas the Prime Minister dare not spell out his vision lest he earns the wrath of the Jhandewalan establishment.
Here, then, is the rub. The two principal political parties, commanding between them about 60 per cent of the national vote, are committed to the same agenda of "reforms". The "Shining India" campaign could well have been an advertising enterprise commissioned during a Congress regime. From time to time the Congress may be tempted to reassert its "secular" credentials just as the BJP may be galvanised into flaunting its Hindutva colours. The Congress does not have the stomach for an unrelenting pursuit of politics of secularism; the BJP has not exactly purged itself of the Narendra Modi virus. Nonetheless, the two parties are defined more by programmatic convergence than by an ideological divide. Above all, both the BJP and the Congress are being financed by the same industrial houses.
Yet the two parties have to provide the competition, fight it out at the national level and in the States. Both are composed of jobless and unemployable political "leaders", who in turn are supported, cheered, financed, and otherwise "helped" by a host of crooked individuals and vested interests. These partisan interests convince the Advanis, the Arun Shouries, the Arun Jaitleys that they are doing something intrinsically better, something more wholesome than the Manmohan Singhs, the Pranab Mukherjees in the Congress stable did or would do if voted back to power.
And because they are unable to convince the country how they are different, the two parties have to contrive to pretend to be better than the other. There is all the more reason to give in to temptation to prove the other fellow to be more corrupt, more venal. Since both the parties know that they have become the plaything of the vested interests, each will be tempted to expose the other party's leaders to be on the take before the other party plays dirty on it.
The second factor at work in this itch to practise dirty tricks is now technologically almost irresistible. The tools of trickery are becoming cheaper and smaller. When the Tehelka expose took place, the gadgets were a novelty; since then the spin-doctors have discovered newer instruments of entrapments. Available technology whets the appetite.
All this unlocking of the cupboards would not be a bad project, if the idea was to cleanse politics of dirty money and rogue politicians. Unfortunately, the current itch is driven by partisanship of the ugly kind. This could have three very adverse consequences.
First, this competitive de-frocking will only lead to the further down-gradation of political processes and politicians as a class. The distinction between good and bad politicians disappear. This degradation in political class ensures other constitutional institutions start encroaching upon the jurisdiction of one another; activism of various kinds produces an imbalance. No polity can reform itself by devaluing politicians as a class.
Second, this itch to play dirty tricks can only ensure that sharpshooters replace the political managers. The initiative within the political parties will pass from the traditional leaders to the hired guns, with no values and no virtues. If political parties come to believe, or are made to believe, that dirty tricks pay electoral dividends, then the leadership gets distracted from its core ideas and ideals.
Third, dirty tricks breed unfairness. And unfairness at the core of any ruling arrangement finds echo in the entire system; those with wholesome impulses feel discouraged and those with roguish intentions and initiatives feel on top of the pile. The end result is death of political decency.
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