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India: This time it’s different, Mr Modi - justice will speak in elections

by Teesta Setalvad, 11 October 2012

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Hindustan Times, October 10, 2012

Elections are a unique business, deciding the fate of some, reflecting, or denying the faith of hundreds of thousands of those who cast the ballot. In the absence of a better or more effective means to reflect popular sentiment, electoral democracy is the best system we have, we know of no better. Money power, paid news and election spending are some of the ’undemocratic’ factors that influence the ballot and though we try, we have not produced an effective remedy. As insidious if not worse is the creeping influence of hate sentiment and majoritarianism within our electoral framework; despite some legal restraints, political parties across the board have benefitted electorally from fielding men, and women indicted for leading mobs to violence against our own.

A quiet verdict delivered by Judge Jyotsana Yagnik on August 29 put a brake on what might have otherwise been the BJP, and their mascot chief minister’s attempt to yet again, brazen out 2002. But for the verdict delivered and convictions read, we may have had Mayabehn Kodnani in the electoral fray and Bajrangi used as an unrepentant campaign tool.

We’ve seen it before. The man who rose to become Maharashtra’s chief minister and Lok Sabha speaker had been named and indicted for rioting in Bombay in the late 1960s. In 1984, the Congressmen named for inciting mobs were given tickets in the December election and romped home from the capital. Post 1992-1993 Bombay saw the saffron combine, clearly named and blamed by Justice BN Srikrishna in his report, field two of the ring leaders—an MP and an MLA—from seats in the country’s capital. Both won. After the killing of 100 Christians in Orissa’s Kandhmal the BJP had no compunction in fielding, both for the assembly and parliament, men indicted for inciting mobs to kill and loot.

For the first time, the Gujarat polls, now two months away, see some of the men and women who led mobs to murder and worse in 2002, punished. The party at the helm that hogs television debates and adopts the moral high ground on fiscal matters, (though the track record of their chieftains in Gujarat and Karnataka seriously blemish this self created halo) has no compunctions defending the indefensible.

How then will Gujarat vote and what will be the result? Will the money and the face power that its chieftain has in abundance, sweep, yet again the dust and dirt that has begun to creep out, if not actually hit the ceiling? In 2007, the chief turned high-tech during his poll campaign. He hired US firm Apco Worldwide, which specialises in creating images of public figures through communication technology. The firm’s clients have included the Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha; Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, president for life of Kazakhstan; and ex-Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The company promoted Modi’s image at an estimated $25,000 a month, though the six crores of Gujaratis do not still know who’s paying. (November 2010, The Outlook magazine)They have not been told, despite being asked—a former chief minister Sureshbhai Mehta and a Vadodara based activist Trupti Shah have both been denied information—on how much is spent from the Gujarati tax payers hard earned money, on the man himself, his personal image, and his personal election campaign. The finer points of democracy are not his strongpoint -transparency, respect for dissent, the rule of law - mesmerizing the masses, and blazing a propaganda trail have been, so far at least, his forte.

One can match statistics with statistics to show that projections of the decade long achievement in the state are exaggerated, that other states have done well or that GNP and GDP could take contrary turns in Gujarat. One can say, for instance, that in the five years between 2004-05 and 2009-10, Gujarat’s per capita income nearly doubled from Rs. 32,021 to Rs. 63,961. In the same period, neighbouring Maharashtra, the perceived laggard, saw its per capita income grow from Rs. 35,915 to Rs. 74,027. Several states besides Gujarat have shown double digit growth in their GDP in recent years, and Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh have bigger economies. Gujarat now runs a revenue deficit-it spends more than it earns-and its surplus has disappeared. Several other states have improved their fiscal positions meanwhile. Surplus power? Facts on the ground and increasing protests show this to be an exaggerated claim; power cuts the fate of the farmer. Human development indicators? Gujarat lags behind in access to primary and higher education, is high on the percentage of population prone to hunger and starvation, access to fiscal credit among the marginalised is low, girl child schooling shows poor figures. State and central government figures support all this.

Yet another sugar quoted analysis opines that Muslims are voting for Modi as the Congress is too weak to do anything for them. Lopsided statistics are often produced to hype the fate of the Muslim, who in Ahmedabad and Vadodara at least has been largely pushed back into a ghettoized, segmentary existence. Gujarat’s Muslims may have the highest bank accounts but - and there is official silence on this —they are comparably and shockingly lowest in the country in access to credit. (In Gujarat loans to Muslims are 17 per cent less than their share in the population). Gujarat is seventh place out of 11 (less than 7 per cent) behind Bihar (22 per cent), AP (around 17 per cent), UP, Maharashtra, Karnataka (around 10 per cent) in the category of male, urban Muslims who have completed graduation. The list could go on. If we co-relate the incidence of poverty among Muslims in a given state with the overall incidence of poverty for the entire state population, we get a real sense of relative poverty in that state. Comparative poverty indicators of Gujarat’s Muslims are at a staggering 218 per cent, neighbouring Maharashtra is only slightly better at 168 per cent and West Bengal is the only state which is much worse-at 255 per cent.

The polls and the result may or may not reflect some of this reality; but for the first time, deliverance of justice to the victims of mass violence—by the protected and the powerful—will make its quiet impact. When the judiciary spoke, as it has spoken since last November under the Supreme Court’s watch, one message rang clear -the political impunity to mob leaders and ring leaders cannot and will not have judicial sanction. Three cheers for Indian democracy. Constitutional Democracy.

(The writer is an activist for the 2002 riots victims. The views expressed are personal)


The above article from Hindustan Times is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.