The conventional wisdom says that this is an issue-less election. There is no central personality of whom voters have to express approval or dislike; no central matter of concern that makes this a one-issue referendum like so many elections in the past; no central party around which everything else revolves — the Congress has been displaced from its customary pole position, and no one else has been able to take its place. Indeed, given that all-seeing video cameras of the Election Commission, and the detailed pictures they are putting together on campaign expenditure, there isn't even much electioning: no slogans on the walls, no loudspeakers blaring forth at all hours of the day and night, no cavalcades of cars heralding the arrival of a candidate at the local bazaar. Forget it being an issue-less election, is this an election at all?
Perhaps the ‘fun’ of an election lies in its featuring someone whom you can love or hate. But Narasimha Rao has managed to reduce even a general election, involving nearly 600 million voters, to the boring non-event that is the trademark of his election rallies, and indeed of everything else that he does. After all, the Nehru-Gandhi clan has disappeared from the political map, and the majority of voters will not even be able to name P.V.Narasimha Rao as India's Prime Minister. There could be as many as a dozen prime ministerial candidates ranging from Jyoti Basu to Ramakrishna Hegde, and from Chandra Shekar to (believe it or not) K.R.Narayanan. The sole personality who stands out, therefore, is none of the players, but the umpire: T.N.Seshan. .
As for the parties, they are like the blind men of Hindustan, trying in vain to gauge the contours of the animal they have to confront. But it doesn't look as if it will be the mandir-masjid, nor will it be Hindutva or economic nationalism. The Congress will like it to be stability, but what does that mean for the majority? Economic reform is a non-issue for most people with inflation down to barely 4 per cent, prices are not top of the mind either. In a strange twist, after the hawala scandal, corruption has been pushed off the map too.
But ponder for a moment, isn't this state of affairs astonishing, given the context? Consider that so many ministers have had to resign over the hawala issue; that a governor who was a cabinet minister has also had to quit, in the wake of judicial displeasure; that the prime minister himself is under investigation for his involvement in not one scandal but two; that the main prime ministerial candidate from the opposition has had to bow out because he too has been charged in the hawala case; and that the head of the ‘third force’ has his own little (or not so little) fodder scandal to face. Why then is corruption not an issue — not as a matter of competitive politics, but as an issue on which the contenders for power feel that they have to offer the prospect of genuine change? If all this does not make the parties (almost all of whom have broken the law, in not submitting their audited accounts every year to the income tax authorities) realise that the country both needs — and is ready for-change in the Supreme Court; the assertiveness of the Election Commission, giving new life to a model code of conduct that has been ignored for a quarter country; the independence that has been thrust upon the Central Bureau of Investigation; and the fresh zeal on the part of tax collectors out to nab corporate no-gooders. Think also that at no other point since the Emergency of 1975-77 have so many people in power been hounded by the system for their misdeeds.
Is this just a case of a few individuals outside the political system doing the job, or is the country heading for a new era? The seventies saw the collapse of the national consensus that marked the Nehruvian era, and ideology took over in the Indira Gandhi years. That too was buried by Rajiv Gandhi and his technocratic friends. And now, we have these issue-less elections. One possibility is that the country is heading for a period of constitutionalism as the other arms of the state reclaim some of the powers they lost, or yielded, to the political establishment. Economic reform free one part of Indian society from the clutches of the political class. Now, this could spread to other parts of the system. Against such a dramatic backdrop, it should be obvious that people (voters) are looking for accountability, for ways in which to make a corrupted system work again. And the astonishing thing is that no party has sought to ride this particular wave; instead all are on the defensive, desperately evading the real issues. No wonder this is an ‘issue-less’ election.