The more you live, the more unsure you become. Nothing's certain anymore. It's not that life's become uncertain...it always was. But the cocksureness of youth made you assume certain things in life are, well...just certain. Today, the only thing you're certain about in Indian politics is that nothing is certain. There are no absolutes, no immutable beliefs. You can't take anything for granted.
One thing we journalists take for granted is the wisdom of the electorate. They got rid of Indira and her son after the Emergency, they sent the squabbling old men of Janata Party packing, they brought the Nehru-Gandhi clan back, they gave a vulnerable Rajiv and a tottering India a landslide victory in 1984. They rein in the bjp by denying them absolute majority. When Nehru was asked how democracy could survive in a poor and illiterate country like India, he said he trusted the wisdom of the Indian voter. So did we.
I'm not so sure anymore. Voters are undoubtedly wise in certain situations but at other times their motives can also seem illogical, expedient, unscrupulous, contradictory, capricious and irrationally emotional. How else can one explain the phenomenal success of Jayalalitha and the other convicted and tainted candidates in Kerala? We journalists who've scoured the countryside election after election know that along the way, corruption ceased to be an issue. People want drinking water, electricity, roads, schools, jobs, primary healthcare centres. But corruption does matter to them; it invades their lives even in remote areas—like the government compounder who wants a Rs 10 bribe to give free polio drops. "Fish rots in the head first, and as long as politicians are corrupt, the whole system will stay corrupt," complain voters constantly. Corruption erupted in a national outrage as recently as in the Tehelka expose.
Yet, when voters have a chance to punish the corrupt, they don't bother. They don't seem to care, so long as candidates nurse their constituencies, as Balakrishna Pillai, the convicted former Kerala electricity minister, did. Or their sympathies are so aroused for the disqualified convicted persons that they return them in a tidal wave of support as in the case of Jayalalitha...the same Jayalalitha who when in power the last time around offended voters so much that her aiadmk won a pathetic four seats in the assembly.
How can voters forget her past track record? How can they believe she's a martyr of Karunanidhi's conspiracies? How can their emotions cloud their scruples? How can they fail to see the impact of the message they're signalling: that they don't care if politicians are corrupt? How can they then complain about our awful lot of politicians when instead of punishing them, they glorify, reward and return the corrupt to office? Can majority verdict subvert law and constitutional propriety? After such verdicts, why shouldn't politicians be brazen about corruption? After all, they're answerable most of all to voters, not to preachy journalists and sanctimonious middle-class. Why shouldn't the likes of Jayalalitha be arrogant and scoff at high-minded editorials and moralistic journalists and tell them to mind their own business, when in a democracy, only voters are "gods".
But these gods change their religion virtually with every election. The gods in God's Own country sent the ldf packing, in Tamil Nadu they abandoned the dmk and in Assam the agp. But defying predictions, they remained loyal in West Bengal.How come voters so quickly forgot that so-called irreplaceable icon Jyoti Basu? They not only gave the thumbs up to his successor Buddhadev Bhattacharyya, but humiliated Basu in his Satgatchia constituency by voting for Trinamul, even while humiliating Mamata Banerjee in the rest of the state, signalling that they won't tolerate her streetfighting, her dramabazi and her make-break-make opportunistic alliances. But voters did in Tamil Nadu. The tmc that opportunistically mended fences with the aiadmk and the Congress benefited handsomely.
The media grappled to find common patterns in this election, even though they contributed to the confusion. One newspaper editorialised: "People want change, not change for the sake of change, but change for better governance." Then why did Tamilians bring back Jayalalitha? Another wrote, "clean governance is not necessarily synonymous with good governance. What else can account for the Amma wave?" Then why did the electorate vote out Karunanidhi whose regime was efficient, albeit corrupt? Yet another wrote, "the common feature is the anti-establishment vote, with the exception of West Bengal". Yet it was the media that described the Red Bastion as crumbling, hyped the power of Mamata's assault and criticised low-profile bhadralok Bhattacharyya, claiming he lacks his predecessor's charisma and wiliness? (Now they say it's precisely his low-key style of functioning that helped the cpi(m) win).
Fact is, this round of elections signal several contradictory messages. Voters can be wise; they're also unpredictable. Psephologists can get it right, but more often they are wrong. Newspaper editorials and analysts preach morality in politics, but are stumped when venal politicians are returned with triumphant mandates. Incumbents tend to lose elections, but they also buck the trend. Marxists are loved in West Bengal, but hated in Kerala.
So then, what do we know for sure? Despite decades of experience, what can reporters and analysts say for sure? What can psephologists say for sure? In 1991 Jayalalitha won spectacularly. In 1996 she was routed. In 2001 she is triumphant. In 2006 she will be booted out again. But then again, not necessarily. Haven't we just proved that Marxists in West Bengal disprove incumbency theories?
Sometimes you wish you were back in kindergarten. At least you knew your nursery rhymes. You knew for sure how Humpty Dumpty ended. But then again, the more you live, the less sure you are he is an egg. (The author can be contacted at anitapratap @ journalist.com.)