Thursday, January 12, 2012

Does the corruption issue even matter in UP?

Just two weeks back, Anna sat on his fast in Mumbai. For nearly a year before then – since the time the CWG scam first broke – the country had been soaked from head to toe in one corruption case after another. And yet when it has come to actual crunch time in India’s largest state UP, the corruption issue does not seem to figure in poll calculations.

The only thing that appears to be mattering in UP is caste and religion. Relegated to the back burner is also the other issue that we like to think matters to people. Economic growth. There have been some stories in the press that UP has seen its best growth rates in the recent few years under Mayawati – yet in almost none of the political speeches that get made in UP (even by Mayawati herself) does the subject of growth figure as a point. So neither corruption, nor growth appears to be important to the elections in UP.

The best description of political parties in UP is on lines of caste and religion. The BSP represents the dalits. The Brahmins were with it but are now apparently deserting it. The BJP represents the Brahmins and may gain from their desertion of the BSP. The Congress and the SP are gunning for the Muslims. Both are trying to outdo each other in supporting the cause of this 19% strong community. Reservations on religious grounds are perhaps unconstitutional – but ingenuous methods are being found to justify them. Even the opposition to such blatantly divisive politics is not on grounds of ideology. The opposition is on the grounds that the OBCs may desert the Congress and the SP since their share in the reservations will be cut – and hence the BJP and the BSP are making noise about it and hoping to gain from it. Not even on this retrograde issue does anyone want to speak from a position of what is good and what is wrong for the country and the state.

The furore over Salman Rushdie is another example of how irrelevant things have become relevant in UP. How does it matter to the people of UP – amongst the poorest in the country – if Rushdie attends the Jaipur Literature Festival or not? I doubt if anyone anywhere in the world gives him so much importance. Out here, the entire state (in fact the whole country) appears to be debating about him and he’s become an important factor in the elections. In this debate, Rushdie is not to be seen as a celebrated Booker prize winner writer. The fact that he is a Muslim makes him prominent. The fact also that he has written a controversial book about Islam makes him even more prominent. That’s why Rushdie is important. Rushdie has provided a religious platform for political battles to be fought. Ask anyone in UP if they have even read the book? Or at least the offensive portions? None of them would have.

Likewise, the strategy of the BJP to induct Kushwaha – or the decision of the Congress to make it compulsory for the government to procure 4% of its purchases from dalit-run companies – are supposed to be masterstrokes. Kushwaha’s corruption is a small issue – just a minor irritant. If you thought it was an embarrassment for the BJP, think again. The battleground is UP – not the English news channel studios. The BJP is more than happy to be torn apart on Arnab’s show – and let him enjoy the feeling of having scored some debating points – but in reality the party doesn’t care. Likewise, the Congress doesn’t mind facing flak on news channels – the strategy to please the Muslims and dalits is a well thought out one.

The media has been reporting somewhat excitedly about the new strategy that is being deployed in UP – the strategy that Nitish Kumar first deployed successfully in Bihar. The strategy of dividing OBCs further into Mahadalits. The British ruled India for 200 years and practiced “divide and rule”. I think that strategy has entered the genes of us Indians. Even if we want to, we cannot move away from it. Give it a few years and even Mahadalits will be subdivided. In the meantime, development and corruption can be given the go by.

This is true all over India, not just in UP and Bihar. In Karnataka, where so much noise was made about the corruption of Yeddy and the Reddy brothers and their close ally Sriramulu, did it even matter when Sriramulu took to the polls as an independent candidate? Not one bit. He won the by-elections handsomely. Both the Congress and the BJP lost. That’s what Yeddy keeps trying to tell his bosses in Delhi – the corruption charges against him do not matter in Karnataka. And that he should be re-instated. And he’s probably right.

That brings us to the very contrary signals we got when Anna’s movement was in full flow. Anna surely struck a chord in the hearts of people. There were at least lacs of supporters, if not millions. All of them appeared to be concerned about corruption. There were many who came from UP also to the Ramlila grounds. Then what happened suddenly? Have they changed their mind? Or is it that the movement was just one big tamasha driven by media – and in reality no one really cared about corruption? Because if the people did care about Anna and his cause, then they should come out and vote for the person or the party considered to be “least” corrupt, even if it was not entirely corruption free. But do we even see any signs of that at all? Absolutely none.

This is the reality of India. People in India identify themselves in five different ways as Ramachandra Guha writes in his brilliant book “India after Gandhi”. These are Religion, Caste, Language, Class and Sex. These establish their identity. After that comes Indianness as an identity. This is also the reason why many leaders around the world never expected India to continue as one nation after independence. That’s why India took so long to get started at the beginning. Even today, the divisive tendencies remain.

It’s only in urban India – where a lot of economic growth has been seen in the last 20 years that identity politics is starting to matter less. Hopefully, twenty more years of economic progress will see growth trickle down to the rural areas – and hopefully once that happens, we will start to see caste and religion mattering less. Hopefully, Nitish Kumar will win a few elections on the back of his work – and not his smart Mahadalit strategy.

The real truth is that corruption is really not a such big issue in India. It never has been. It may matter to the urban middle class, but it hardly matters to the people who matter. That’s the reason why the Lokpal Bill never became a reality in the last 40 years. That’s why we should take the Lokpal bill we are getting now – even if it is not as strong as we would like it to be. Else, we will have to wait for another 40 years. Corruption simply isn’t the most important issue in India……

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