//Surjit S Bhalla: Mr Advani, just don't do it

Surjit S Bhalla: Mr Advani, just don't do it

IT DOESN`T MATTER, Surjit S Bhalla / New Delhi March 18, 2006

Unsolicited advice to the old yatris-the time for such travel is long gone.
There is a terrorist attack in a temple in Varanasi, and Islamic terrorists are the major suspects. This attack was preceded by India voting against Iran on the nuclear issue, and India signing a nuclear agreement with the US. There are some politicians who link the vote against Iran as part of an anti-Muslim sentiment in the UPA government. There are politicians within the UPA who feel that they have to appease Muslims as “compensation”! That this is far beyond the realm of any logic is not the issue; it is a fact that some politicians think that by making religious noise, they will curry favour and attract votes. Just the same logic was used by a Muslim UP politician who issued a fatwa against the editor of a Danish newspaper for publishing religious cartoons. Why he should not be arrested for incitement to murder is a question few politicians want to deal with.
Entering this cauldron of hate and illogic is Mr Advani, the always also ran BJP candidate for Prime Minister. His bright interpretation of the Varanasi terrorism (plain simple criminal activity as Uma Bharati, now not in the BJP, had the good sense to point out) is that the attack on the temple was an attack on Hindus and a result of the “minority appeasement” politics of the Congress and the UPA. Further, he grandiosely (and wrongly) declared that “India has remained democratic and secular because it is pre-dominantly Hindu, India is what it is because it is Hindu”. Most likely, India is democratic precisely because it is a very heterogeneous society, and democratic precisely because it is in its bones a capitalistic society. Democracy and capitalism both reward individual initiative, and individual merit (of course, criminals get in the way of both the market and democracy).
What is Mr Advani’s solution to get the hate and appeasement out of the way? Why, from a knee-jerk yatri, a national integration yatri! Simple unsolicited advice to the BJP and especially Mr Advani—just don’t do it.
For his own sake. The march is likely to be a super humungous dud, and forever Advani will be remembered as the yatri who never reached his destination. There are several reasons for arriving at this harsh conclusion. First, a march is an anachronistic idea, it belongs to a different era. When Mahatma Gandhi led the salt march, that was innovation and high political skill. It was a method of communicating with the people—indeed, at that time the only method of communication, of being in political touch.
Second, a little appreciated fact is that the yatra was already outdated at the time Mr Advani undertook it in 1990. Some credit his yatra before the 1991 elections as a major reason for the BJP’s electoral success in that year. The BJP won more seats than it ever did in that year (not counting subsequent years). They won 120 seats after contesting 468, with a win ratio of 25.6 per cent. Just two years earlier, in 1989, and before Advani’s “great” and “successful” rath yatra, the BJP had won 86 seats contesting only 226, with a high win ratio of 38 per cent. In the 1984 elections, the BJP had won only two seats. The point being that just as in stocks, so in politics, there is a marked tendency for a “reversal to the mean”. So to attribute the BJP performance of 1991 to the rath yatra is akin to attributing the fall of the NDA government in 2004 to “bad” economic policies. And akin to attributing the rise of the Sensex to the economic policies of the UPA government! Elections and markets are the result of several factors. Rath yatra, and populist economic policies just do not make it.
The third fallacy in Mr Advani’s quest “in the name of votes” is his belief that religion remains an important voting criterion. Religion is possibly most important when societies are very poor, or very rich. In the in-between realm, religion is important, but getting ahead is even more important. India has changed since the Mahatma’s time, and changed even more since 1990. No longer does Bharat provide a ready basis for a “rent- a-riot” or “rent-a-vote” campaign.
Whom does Mr Advani think he will appeal to? What is the “new” idea, or the new reasoning, that he will communicate with his travels? The rent-a-crowd mentality is not appropriate anymore. People are busy working, something that was established during the NDA tenure year of 2003, when the unemployment rate in India reached a record low of less than 3.5 per cent. Results from the National Sample Survey of consumer expenditures for 2004-05 are eagerly awaited; they are likely to confirm what other survey organisations and rural experts have been stating for quite some time—you underestimate the strength of the rural economy at your own peril.
What politicians (especially older ones) like Advani do not recognise is that India is a changed country today, an evolution that has been in the works for the last decade or so. Today, only two groups remain who do not recognise this important historical transition—the extreme left and the extreme right, i.e. the doctrinaire left within the left, and the reactionary right within the right. Thus, for the nth time, the extreme right and the extreme left are on the same side—both wish, for their own distorted ends, that Bharat is the poor, very poor, India of the 1960s and 1970s. Sadly for them, the burgeoning middle class, now more than a third of the population, and influential beyond its size, is in no mood for the beliefs that have delayed India reaching its tryst with a successful destiny. A destiny that does not have time for strikes, or yatras.
A realisation that has dawned on some extremes—news just in is that the founder oligarch of the Communist party in Kerala has been ousted by his colleagues. The coffee shop revolutionaries in the Communist Party have been sidelined by all, except their drinking buddies! So there are winds of change that even the extremes recognise for survival. This is a change that Mr Advani, and the BJP, cannot afford to ignore.

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