Thursday, February 15

Fading spectres in sadda Punjab

An overview of the recent elections in Punjab by HARISH K. PURI, former professor of political science, Guru Nanak Dev University, in The Indian Express

Har ek baat pey kehtey ho tum ke tu kya hai
Tumhi kaho ke yeh andaaz-e-guftgu kya hai
— Mirza Ghalib
Whichever side wins the assembly election in Punjab, the state’s voters, particularly in the urban areas, will have expressed their revulsion against the banality of political discourse and poverty of ideas. The crude tu-tu-main-main, plain mud-slinging and name-calling which was conducted by the two ‘stalwarts’ during the campaign — Captain Amarinder Singh and Parkash Singh Badal — grew progressively more abusive and vulgar daily. The live presentation of debates between the candidates on different TV channels exposed to the viewers not only their emptiness but also a behaviour that was often far from civilised.
We in Punjab have also been witness to the institutionalised system of large-scale and free supply of liquor, poppy husk and other intoxicants and the intimidating spectacle of gangs of musclemen turning out at the local gatherings addressed by candidates of both the major political parties. The spectacular display of unaccounted-for money that went into electioneering rendered the high-voltage accusations of corruption flung at each other by political rivals patently hypocritical.
During the 2002 assembly election campaign, Captain Amarinder Singh had seemed to enjoy a relative advantage against Badal, in whose regime corruption was widely believed to have touched new heights. This time things were different. After five years, the Captain and his government suffered a credibility deficit on that count. ‘Luterey’, or plunderers, was the most commonly heard term used for the leaders of the two major political parties. The proportion of people who routinely made such a remark in disgust or in fun was amazingly high. No one defended Badal but it also seemed that the Captain had more to worry about.
Far less appreciated, however, is the progressive waning of the communal and sectarian divides in the rhetoric of election campaigns since the end of Khalistani terrorism in Punjab. During the last five years, the Congress CM Captain Amarinder Singh virtually stole and appropriated much of the traditional political symbolism and panthic agenda propagated by Badal’s Shiromani Akali Dal. Whether it was the celebration of Sikh religious ceremonies by the state government, its efforts to ensure easy access of Sikhs to Nankana Sahib, its hard line on the question of sharing Punjab river waters with Haryana or the competitive populism of free electricity and water for agriculture — in each, the Congress tended to outdo the Akalis. With a Sikh as prime minister, a Sikh chief of army, a Muslim as president, the spectre of Hindu majoritarian threat to minorities does not carry conviction any more in Punjab. The Akalis could not capitalise on the traditional sectarian rhetoric of Sikhan naal vitkara, Punjab naal dhakka or the idiomatic portrayals of the Centre and Congress as enemy of the panth.
In spite of the political assertion among lower caste communities, caste exclusiveness was less marked than earlier. Instead, a “possessive individualism”, the single-minded objective of making private profit from public office and a managerial approach to electoral competition blurred the sharp lines that used to differentiate the two major parties. All major parties focused on issues relating to development — jobs, electricity, roads, education etc. The cheap populism of atta at Rs 4 and dal at Rs 20 per kg had become the subject of jokes.
“They lie”, “they lie” — this matter-of-fact reaction by ordinary people to the tall promises made by the leading contenders was a reminder that the voter is nobody’s fool. The electorate seemed to intuitively understand what a seasoned political scientist has surmised — that in the age of capitalist liberalisation the people sometimes choose a government that they liked for its promises, but it was far less possible for any government to fulfill those promises. There is a disconnect between the ruling view of ‘development’ and the human needs and capabilities of the vast majority. In the rhetoric of the two parties, ‘development’ had come to mean mainly skyways, SEZs, malls, IT parks and investment. Ideology as the basis of choice or priority was passé.
Let us not be so cynical, however, as to ignore the thrill of this election as a festival of democracy. Like in other celebrations, Punjabis brought their own charm to it. There was noise and colour, animated crowds on the move, the spectacle of slipping masks, abuses and brawls and perhaps also a whiff of hope.
Democracy, however, is much more than elections. It is not substantive without a sustained and active participation at all levels. For that to happen, it is necessary that political parties put a premium on democracy in their own decision-making. The authoritarian tendency in the working of all political parties may be the reason why no party in Punjab spoke about the implementation of police reforms or promoting the exercise of the right to information in its campaign for the state.

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