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archive: India's dynasty gambles on old loyalties

India's dynasty gambles on old loyalties

Posted by Ashok Chowgule (ashokvc@giasbm01.vsnl.net.in)
The Independent, London
September 5, 1999.

    Title: India's dynasty gambles on old loyalties
    Publication: The Independent, London
    Date: September 5, 1999.
    The hamlet of Vittalapora clings to the side of a granite hill in the
    middle of nowhere in Karnataka, southern India. The empty landscape of
    scrub, pasture and cotton fields stretches away to a chain of blue
    hills in the far distance. It's 4.20 pm on 3 September: pumpkin time
    Sushma Swaraj, candidate for the ruling alliance in the general
    election, the woman on a mission to beat Sonia Gandhi, must finish
    campaigning by 5pm or she will be disqualified.
    This is, therefore, the last stop on the tour. In 14 days Ms Swaraj
    has travelled more than 4,000km, starting at 4 am and getting back at
    midnight, addressing 25 to 30 meetings every day, speaking in the
    local language, Kannada, which she says she learned in the first three
    days of the campaign.
    And in between the meetings she has the likes of me to pacify. The way
    to interview practically any Indian politician at election time - the
    heavily cordoned Mrs Gandhi being the obvious exception - is to
    slither uninvited into the back of their car after a campaign stop,
    and fire away.
    Ms Swaraj is tired and a little croaky but far from down as the car
    climbs into Vittalapora, and then you see where she gets her energy. A
    swarm of villagers descends on the car like happy bees, whooping and
    thumping the boot and bonnet and banging on drums. Young girls in
    green and golden saris bring brass trays containing petals and incense
    and rotate them solemnly over the bonnet, giving the candidate the
    welcome of a returning village daughter.
    The hamlet contains barely a dozen whitewashed mud huts, but in a flat
    area in the middle, before a bamboo stage, 200 villagers, mostly
    women, are sitting very quietly and attentively on the ground, with
    another hundred standing behind them. Ms Swaraj ascends the stage and
    begins talking to the people in Kannada; quite quickly it is apparent
    why she is one of the stars of her party, the Hindu nationalist
    Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
    "Every constituency I have stood for I! have adopted as my child," she
    told me in the car, and this cliché comes to life when she speaks. She
    has the large, bright eyes of some small friendly mammal; her face is
    all motherly curves and dimples, and the big red spot on her brow and
    the red paste in the parting of her hair declare her a proud and pious
    Hindu. And when she speaks it is as if she were addressing only one
    person, in words arising just now to her mind - not repeating for the
    300th time (in a foreign tongue) the same speech.
    At Vittalapora, as everywhere before, she makes just two points: Mrs
    Gandhi, her opponent, is a foreigner by race and religion, with no
    experience of politics; and the Congress party she heads, for which
    this constituency, Bellary, is one of the safest seats in the country,
    has done nothing in 50 years to repay the voters for their loyalty. 
    If Ms Swaraj is as popular across the rest of this huge constituency
    of 1.3 million voters as she is in Vittalapora, Bellary will be Mrs
    Gandhi's political graveyard. And it will serve Mrs Gandhi and her
    party right.
    Congress has always been a complex mixture of the modern and the
    reactionary, but 50 years ago it was the best embodiment of India's
    progressive urges. Today, in a place like this, it is just the
    opposite. The only voters it can depend on are the most backward, the
    poorest of the poor - not because Congress has been their champion and
    changed their lot, but because they are too uneducated to change the
    habit of a lifetime.
    If Mrs Gandhi gets their votes, it will be because Congress's gamble
    on their stupidity has come good. Mrs Gandhi has spent only two days
    campaigning in the constituency, reading out her speech in Hindi
    before large crowds, and even this commitment of time may have been
    more than originally intended before the Sushma guided missile hit
    town. "They thought she would only have to file the nomination and
    collect the certificate," Ms Swaraj remarked caustically.
    If Mrs Gandhi wins, Congress will have found the constituency where
    people are too dumb to ask whether her striking inadequacies as a
    candidate - her inexperience, her remoteness, and, yes, her
    foreignness - matter. A place dopey enough to vote for the dynastic
    principle. The arrogance is breathtaking. One local Congress grandee
    expressed it to me very well. "It will be a privilege," he said, "for
    the people of Bellary to elect Sonia Gandhi."
    But if Congress has got it wrong, Bellary will be seen as a watershed,
    both for Congress and the BJP, which is the main pillar of the
    National Democratic Alliance, the governing coalition. Bellary is
    classic marches land, border territory where the Dravidian culture of
    southern India met and mingled, violently and peaceably, with the
    Aryan culture of the north.
    Something similar is happening in this election. While the BJP is
    theoretically a national party, it has never had any strength in the
    south before; in last year's general election, the BJP candidate for
    Bellary gained only six per cent of the vote. But under the
    imperatives of power - and the crafty stewardship of prime minister
    Atal Behari Vajpayee - the BJP is visibly changing.
    Two years ago it was regarded as "untouchable" by other parties
    because of its commitment to radical Hindu nationalist goals. For the
    sake of harmony with its many coalition partners, all controversial
    goals have been set aside. What the party stands for has accordingly
    become rather muddy. But it is the party which fought and "beat"
    Pakistan at Kargil; in the simplest terms, its nationalistic
    credentials have proved sound. In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, it has
    a partnership with a local party, Telugu Desam Party, whose leader,
    Chandrababu Naidu, is the boldest executor of economic reforms in the
    country. In Ms Swaraj, it has a northerner who is a champion of the
    touchies and feelies.
    And Congress? "What can I do?" Congress's last and rather pathetic
    leader, Sitaram Kesri, lamented. "I have only a widow!"

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