Which party will get to sing Jai Ho at the end of its election campaign? Will Rahul Gandhi be projected as the prime ministerial candidate by the Congress? Will the tensions between Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley get resolved? Will Shahrukh Khan campaign for the Congress?
It is such trivialities that are preoccupying the largest democracy in the world as it is almost halfway into the election phase. The great Indian tamasha as the elections are fondly called have genuinely become all tamasha this time, where we all seem to be waiting for the next trick up the sleeves of political wheeler-dealers. Elections have been reduced to electoral jugglery where the main debate is about who will join whom, thereby shaping the coalition architecture and the next government. These elections might just turn out to be the one of the most banal exercises this country has ever undertaken. The electoral scenario of today's India would be comical if the stakes were not so high. India will get its next government by default rather than merit, and such an outcome is never good for the health of a democracy.
Five years ago the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government had begun with much promise. The Congress had won against all odds and Sonia Gandhi, by renouncing the most powerful office in the country, had become the most powerful political figure. She had given the prime ministership to one of the most respected public figures of the last 20 years, to someone who had taken some tough decisions at a time when it had seemed nothing could go right for the country. So it was natural that it was seen as the beginning of a new phase in the functioning of the Congress party, and it was expected that after being out of power for a long time the Congress would have governed with a renewed sense of purpose, especially with an efficient Manmohan Singh at the helm.
But none of those rosy assumptions has come to pass. The Congress soon returned to its geriatric ways. The enthusiasm that the electorate had felt when they watched a number of young parliamentarians emerge from the Grand Old Party was soon deflated when once again young blood was sidelined. The Cabinet ministers and the party functionaries continued to be the same old tired faces that have given such a tawdry reputation to the party. The political capital that Sonia Gandhi had won so painstakingly got spent frivolously as the party returned to its grand old ways. Soon the government was crippled with the Communists refusing to allow any meaningful measures of governance to be undertaken. Sonia Gandhi continued to play it safe without challenging the old guard and preferring the status quo.
The prime minister, despite his noble intentions, singularly failed to either manage the country well or to provide a vision for the nation's future. Yet, it is not his fault. He didn't earn the political capital in the last election. Sonia Gandhi, as the leader of the Congress, did and she failed to use that capital to carve out a vision of where the Congress should be leading India. The main reason for this is the deference that Congress-wallahs reserve for the Gandhi family. Deference is never good for democracy. Democracies should not have a royal family as the decline of the Congress under the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty epitomises.
For the Congress, the collapse of courage is total -- a failure that comes from the very top. It has done nothing to project its own narrative in the last five years. Surrounded by its feckless allies, it has begun to look like the stupid party, a movement with nothing substantive to say and no base to protect. Its identity has been rendered sterile by decades of tactics and compromises. And yet it says something about the woeful state of Indian polity that the Congress might return to power given the failure of the main opposition the Bharatiya Janata Party to offer a credible alternative.
Lal Krishna Advani had the opportunity of evolving the BJP into a centre-right political formation, away from the extremism that tends to dominate the party. To be a conservative doesn't mean one necessarily has to be racist, communal, retrograde or close-minded. Conservatives are those who value custom over change, who worry about the erosion of the familiar and the expansion of the State and who dislike those who appear condescending about matters of faith, patriotism and culture. He could have made his party a progressive conservative force by modernising and widening the party, reinforcing the need for economic reforms and giving respectability to the word nationalism by rescuing it from its Hindu variant. But Advani never articulated a governing philosophy. His politics has been all about tactics with no strategic framework to describe the state of the country or the needs of the voters. And so the face of the BJP for the nation today is of a bigot, Varun Gandhi, who wants to prove his Hindutva credentials and scramble up the greasy political pole so that he can get close to power at the earliest. Meanwhile, another defeat for the BJP would mean Narendra Modi's brand of extreme right ideology taking centre-stage with grave repercussions for the party and the Indian polity.
There is no vision from either of the two main parties of where India should be heading in these crucially important early years of the 21st century. Neither party has made an all encompassing argument -- so their proposals don't add up to more than the sum of their parts. Without a ground-breaking argument about why they are different, both the Congress and the BJP has had to rely on tactical gimmicks to stay afloat. They have no frame to organise their responses and the myriad problems confronting the nation. In most successful political careers, there is a purpose, a guiding philosophy which is the foundation, all the rest is secondary. But our political leaders have positions; a series of separate, discrete and seemingly unconnected stands do not coherence make.
The failure of the two main parties has opened up the space for the smaller regional parties that have no sense of the nation as a whole. More than any another time in India's history we need leaders today whose interests are not special but general, those who can understand and treat the country as a whole. For as much as anything it needs to be reaffirmed at this juncture that India is an organic entity, that no interest, no class, so section is either separate or supreme above the interests of all. At crucial moments in a nation's history it needs a leader who can inspire, who can rally a nation to a standard, who can infuse a country with confidence. Regrettably, there is none in sight. Is it any wonder then that India continues to look to the film industry and its cricket pitches in search of its idols? They may be faux gods but at least they have some talent!