Tuesday 15 December 1998

Elections 1996 - The Emergence of Kathakali Politics

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

No visit to Kerala is complete without witnessing a kathakali
performance. Onstage, actors don masks and change their facial
expressions with kaleidoscopic speed. What keeps the whoops
and grimaces from being frightening is the knowledge that it is
all make-believe; that today’s Ravana will be tomorrow’s Rama,
and that this minute’s growl will change to the next minute’s

Malayali audiences regard their politics too as theatre; by not
taking the feints and jabs seriously, the state has avoided much
of the violence associated with its ideological cousin, Bengal. The
roars and abuses hurled at rivals from public platforms may
sound ferocious, but close to the surface is the realisation that it
is all a charade, and that apparent enemies are in reality cousins,
if not twins. Just as there is usually only a small percentage of
votes separating the Congress-led front from the CPM-led one,
there is only a very small shading of policy differences between
them, a difference that is lost on most citizens.

That there appears to be a similar unacknowledged consensus
on many issues between the major players in the national
political stage may be an indication of approaching maturity in
the Indian democratic process. For the same phenomenon can be
seen in two of the most established democracies in the world,
Britain and the US, where rival parties alternate in power with
only a small difference in policies.

An Example 
Such a tendency towards consensus works against those who
seek to sharply define their positions from the rest. V. P. Singh
is an example. The individual who in 1975-80 was a loyalist of
Sanjay Gandhi, presiding over the slaughter of lower caste
"dacoits" by the police while chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, 
metamorphosed into an economic reformer during 1985-86, 
giving the country two very good budgets as finance minister. 

During 1987-91, he donned the avatar of social reformer, pushing 
caste war to the top of the national agenda. In contrast, P. V. 
Narasimha Rao has, since his takeover in mid-1991, focused on 
economic issues. The BJP, which appears to be 'blessed’ with two 
heads, has been moving from one camp to the other, sometimes 
stressing social issues, and at other times the economic. In the 
process, it appears to be confusing some of its sizeable vote bank.

The emergence of consensus-builders over confrontationists
in each of three major troupes in the current political drama
indicates the growth of what may be called middle-class
aspirations in the country. This is to have a reasonable level of
growth and social stability, rather than promote attempts at
pushing forward divisive agendas. Such aspirations now appear
to cut through the more traditional divisions in Indian society,
such as the forwards and the backwards, or the Hindus and the
Muslims. Hence, even on the platform of V. P. Singh and Ram
Vilas Paswan, the emergence of R. K. Hegde, Deve Gowda and
Laloo Yadav as key players. All three are acceptable to the
Congress as potential partners in a way that the first two names
are not.

Odd One Out
In the line-up of the three major formations, the BJP is the odd
one out. This is because the party has yet to understand the
changes brought about by economic progress in the political
chemistry of the land. With affluence—albeit very moderate by
international standards—there is a reluctance to generate tempests
such as those created by demanding the pulling down of
established houses of worship in Kashi or Mathura. While the
Naib Imam of Jama Masjid may not agree with this, the fact
remains that December 6, 1992 was the date when the BJP's
swell began to ebb. The tensions unleashed by the violent
demolition of a house of worship in Ayodhya by so-called
"responsible" leaders of a mainstream party repelled many who
were otherwise drifting towards the BJP.

Thanks to the acceptance by the Rao government during
1991-94 of the nostrums peddled by the Pakistan-centric Clinton
administration, the BJP was awarded the nationalist platform by
default. However, since last year the Prime Minister appears to
have moved away from the "Voice of America" - the troika of
officers in the PMO, Finance Ministry and Ministry of External
Affairs, who were perceived as relying on faxes from Washington
for guidance on how to deal with policy issues. Last year, the
abandoning of the earlier preference for MNCs over Indian
companies became clear in the ITC case, when the financial
institutions refused to gift the company to the foreign principal
in the same way as dozens of other companies had been given
away during 1991-94. The moving away from blind acceptance
of Washington’s dictates on security issues became clear when
India refused to sign the Non-proliferation Treaty. Had Rao
adopted, during his first four years in office, the same policies
that he is following now, the Congress may have been a sure
winner this election. However, at present the most it can hope for
is to emerge as the single largest party in the next Lok Sabha.

However, the advantage the Congress has over the BJP is
that its threshold for cobbling together a viable coalition is much
lower than that for the BJP. Thanks to the latter’s sharper
differences with the other major players, the BJP will need a
minimum of 220 seats to attract the 60 more that will be needed
to form a stable government. The Congress, on the other hand,
needs only about 170 to be able to attract 110 more MPs. While
there is likely to be a challenge to Rao’s position as leader of the
Congress parliamentary party in the event of it’s score falling
below the 200-seat mark, a tally of 170 is enough to position the
Congress at the head of a new coalition.

This difference in the acceptability of the Congress as
compared to the BJP is what gives a kathakali flavour to the
current electoral scene. Apart from the ideological JD hard
liners—V. P. Singh and Paswan—most of the other leaders are
likely to support a Congress-led coalition after the polls, both in
order to form a stable government and to keep the BJP out of the
reckoning. So far as the Congress is concerned while a post-poll
alliance is eminently feasible with Laloo Yadav or Mulayam
Singh Yadav, it is not so with A. B. Vajpayee. Thus, even while
abusing each other in public the leaders of the Congress and
several of the components of the NF-LF would be keeping an eye
on the post-poll scenario, when "Ravana" Rao may become
Rama, and "Duryodhana" Mulayam may reappear as Lakshmana.

Policy Changes
In such a coming-together, there would be policy changes, again
at the margin. Greater emphasis would be given to Indian
companies, even while liberalisation proceeds apace. There
would not be a reflexive kowtowing to Western security
perceptions. The advantage would, in time, go to a cleaner lot of
politicians, such as I. K. Gujral or A. K. Antony. The members of
the "Sonia Lao, Desh Bachao" brigade would disappear into their
natural habitat, the kitchen area of 10 Janpath. All in all, not very
different from the Narasimha Rao rule of the past nine-and-odd

In kathakali things change while remaining the same. The
middle of May will reveal whether political life in India imitates
this art, or whether our democracy is still distant from the
subcutaneous stability of the advanced democracies.

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