A vote against arrogance and hate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 May, 2004, 12:00am

Mahesh Kumar's three langur monkeys earn him a fair income, but they have provided even greater services to India's democracy. Mangal, Ronik and Manu were hired by the Election Commission earlier this year to get tough with other primates who had been terrorising the capital's citizens as they tried to register as voters. Mr Kumar got 6,000 rupees (HK$1,000) a month for Mangal's efforts alone, in the run-up to the election.

Pinky, another obstreperous langur, is luckier. He has a full-time job chasing off the monkey menace from the grounds of parliament.

This month, India's voters went on a hunt of their own, turfing out a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government that most commentators had viewed as impregnable. The shock result has been explained as the electoral equivalent of a peasants' revolt, an uprising by a disenfranchised rural majority trampled underfoot during India's mad rush for shopping complexes and call centres.

But it was much more than that. It was a vote against the suffocating corruption and inertia of Indian politics, and a stand against arrogance and the philosophy of hate. Of the 182 BJP candidates defending their seats, less than 20 made it back to parliament (out of 138 seats won). India's politicians talk a lot about the 'anti-incumbency' factor without ever really questioning what drives such a phenomenon. But it is simple: the ousted legislator is arrogant, corrupt or lazy. Quite often, it is a combination of all three.

Meanwhile, in Gujarat another issue came to the fore. The western state has been dubbed a laboratory of hate by secularists. Up to 2,000 Muslims died in riots in 2002. If there was anywhere the BJP could be expected to make gains, it was Gujarat. But the reverse happened. Across the country, Muslims abandoned the regional parties who supported the BJP. Nobody really believed assertions of a new pluralistic, caring party. 'I think the Gujarat riots had a subterranean effect,' said one analyst. 'This was the first national election since the riots and the BJP caught a backlash.'

More than some mythical ideology of Hindu superiority or the return of familiar faces, voters wanted change, to tackle local issues that blight their lives.

There is much to mull over for the new Congress-led government: it must act, but take care and govern with humility. The election has shown that Indians will throw out those who abuse their office or fail to deliver. The trouble is that the cycle keeps repeating. Just like Mangal and Pinky, most of the time the electorate is chasing shadows.

Mark Williams reports on South Asia for the Post and other newspapers