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|February 19, 2002||
T V R Shenoy
No surprises this time
At precisely two minutes past eight this Wednesday evening, something unique shall take place -- a triple palindrome [a word or number that reads the same both ways]. Using military timing, it shall read '20:02, 20/02, 2002.'
So much for what shall be unique. What shall not, repeat not, be anything of the kind will be the elections that are going on in several states, chiefly Uttar Pradesh. If the exit polls are correct -- and there is really no reason to believe otherwise -- it will just be the same old story in India's most populous state. No party will win a clear majority, they will bargain back and forth, try to induce defections from the smaller groups (mainly the Congress), and end up with a jumbo ministry.
However, Uttar Pradesh's voters have only themselves to blame for this state of affairs. If they allow themselves to be swayed by appeals to caste -- which seems to be the principal card being played by every party -- they deserve everything they get.
Isn't it time we seriously considered slicing Uttar Pradesh into smaller states? If Awadh, Bundelkhand, and other divisions insist on going their own merry way, let them each have a ministry of their own. That might, at last, force politicians to focus on development instead of on caste. Although, given the example of Uttaranchal, even that cannot be taken for granted...
Punjab will be slightly luckier in that it shall probably end up giving a clear majority to the Congress. But the state is on the verge of bankruptcy, and there is little political will to take the hard decisions that are required to fend off the impending financial crisis. Development is, predictably, little more than a word in the dictionary. (And not one that is used with any frequency at that!)
The truth is that every political party has carefully kept the real issue away from the spotlight, irrespective of whether the state going to the polls is mighty Uttar Pradesh or tiny Manipur. That issue is the financial crisis, which is facing every state. I spoke of Kerala last time -- where the state government has been saved from embarrassment by an eleventh-hour grant from the Union government -- but Kerala is not unique. Or did everyone miss the grim announcement from Patna that the Bihar administration would stop paying its employees unless it received an emergency financial transaction?
To tell the truth, the financial crisis can't even claim to be a sideshow in these polls, it is a no-show! So what is the sideshow?
Well, the brace of by-elections that are taking place alongside the full-blown assembly polls. A sitting chief minister is contesting in Gujarat. A once and future chief minister is testing the political waters in Tamil Nadu. And a former prime minister is trying to regain relevance in Karnataka.
Of course, there is some reason for the indifference of the media to these stories. When was the last time that you heard of a sitting minister, leave alone a chief minister or prime minister, failing to win a by-election? The voters know perfectly well that the minister is ideally placed to steer goodies their way. And in any case, Rajkot is regarded as something of a bastion for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Finally, the icing on the cake is that Narendra Modi is generally regarded as both honest and efficient.
Nor is there much suspense in Andipatti. It was the seat once held by the legendary M G Ramachandran. His party, the AIADMK, won an absolute majority in Tamil Nadu last year. The AIADMK candidate today is his protege J Jayalalithaa, architect of the aforementioned victory. Short of a miracle, the lady's triumphal return to chief ministership is a foregone conclusion. The sole interest is in seeing the margin of her victory.
Of the three by-elections I mentioned, only the last one is interesting. H D Deve Gowda, prime minister for a brief period, is standing from Kanakapura. If he wins, it shall be the second time that a former prime minister shall resurrect a career courtesy of the voters of Karnataka. But much has happened in the quarter of a century since Indira Gandhi was elected from Chikmagalur. In those days, she had the advantage of a state where her own party was in power; Deve Gowda, on the contrary, is standing from a state where he lost in the last general election. (He lost from his native Hassan; the vacancy in Kanakapura came up because its Member of Parliament, a Congressman, died.) It shall be something of a slap in the face for the ruling S M Krishna ministry if their old foe wins, but the Congress can live with it.
But let us be honest, these are three by-elections where the old adage of 'good news being no news' shall hold true. If Narendra Modi, Jayalalithaa, and H D Deve Gowda win, the reaction will be a polite yawn. There won't be any major story unless these people lose. (Which is unlikely in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu at any rate.)
Again, Manipur and Uttaranchal are really too small to create much of a ripple. A Congress victory in Punjab is being taken for granted. That really leaves the spotlight on giant Uttar Pradesh, but the story there won't begin until the post-poll 'negotiations' start.
The current polls mark the fiftieth anniversary of independent India's first foray in electoral democracy. It is a sad reflection that nobody seems interested in discussing the real issue -- the economy.
The next triple-palindrome date shall come on a night one hundred and ten years from today -- 21:12, 21/12, 2112. I hope India's states shall have climbed out of their economic holes at least by then!
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