Ignoring ground issues

As politicians rhetorically raise terrorism and security threat issues in parliament elections, Iftikhar Gilani reports the disconnect between the slogans and issues on ground.
General elections, now in the last leg, were like a festival, where leaders and scribes tasted “real India” far from the tech savvy metros, drawing room gossips, TV debates and hustle and bustle of Sensex. With seven national parties, 42 regional and 176 unregistered parties luring voters, the campaign was a fury of activity. Leaders shooting through the country left no chance to seek applause in a virtually issue less election.
While addressing his maiden press conference in New Delhi, Congress general secretary and its chief campaigner was candid enough to admit that central issues affecting common man have been pushed to back burner in the heat of debates on peripheral issues like terrorism and black money.
After chief minister Naveen Patnaik deserted BJP and Congress appointed Ghulam Nabi Azad as state in charge, Orissa became a favorite for journalists to feel the pulse of voters. Most scribes descended to Kandhamal affected by anti-Christian violence to unearth juicy stories for world consumption.
But a 12-hour journey from state capital Bhubaneswar reveals a new world full of pathos and corroborates Rahul Gandhi’s complaint against media and political parties.
In Pengdusi village of Kalahandi district, a frail and hungry Madan Nayak was performing last rites for his wife, who had died of hunger. In the nearby Kottali village, Dhiru Kaka had lost his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren out of starvation.
Back in Delhi, political parties are drumming up their schemes for poor. While the Congress party has promised subsidized food grains for Rs. 3 per kg and a law to ensure food security, the BJP vouches for Rs. 2 per kg rice.  Little did these leaders know that Nayak, like thousands of families in the region, is unable to afford the subsidized rice offered by the “benevolent” state government.
In nearby Madhya Pradesh, between July 2008 and January 2009, at least 676 children have died of hunger and malnourishment. Ironically, India’s hungriest districts of Kalahandi-Bolangir and Koraput areas in Orissa have seven billionaires in fray seeking votes of hungry and malnourished population.
The state of affairs in the forsaken areas of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh explains the increasing prowess of Maoist Left extremists who off late have been striking with impunity. Their strength is the forsaken and frustrated people vying for a morsel of food.
Delhi journalists had first taste of countryside while covering Rahul Gandhi’s speech in Harchandpur town in Rai Bareli. Armed with lap tops and other paraphernalia, wireless modems refused to work for want of network. A local Congress worker pointed out that there was fax machine available in the nearby town some 15 kms from the spot. The owner of fax machine, a cloth merchant doubling as a scribe for a Hindi daily, to our disappointment revealed that electricity playing hide and seek will now show up only next day to power his fax machine.  Appalled at the condition of electricity in this VVIP constituency sending most powerful MPs in the parliament, the condition of basic amenity in other parts of country was not beyond imagination.
While such central issues send politicians scurrying for cover, they tend to raise tempers through sentimental issues. In Delhi, Rahul Gandhi may decry political parties, in his mother Sonia Gandhi’s constituency, local district Congress chief and her election manager reminds people of Congress party’s sacrifices against Pakistan.
Around 100 Kms from Lucknow, Rai Bareli and adjoining Amethi and Sultanpur constituencies are political islands for the Congress party sending Gandhis to Parliament. In rest of state, the Congress party is fighting for a foothold since it lost its core constituency of Brahmins, Muslims and Dalits to other parties in the aftermath of Babri Masjid demolition in 1992.
Asked if Pakistan bashing and reminding people of 1971 Bangladesh victory really cuts ground, Sanjay Singh – former Maharaja and Congress candidate from Sultanpur – admitted it makes audience to applause and runs adrenalin in the crowd. But for voting economy, bijli and sadak will count in the minds.
In the nearby state of Bihar, former cricketer Kirti Azad contesting from Dharbanga constituency on BJP ticket promised to focus on local issues like employment and basic amenities after he faced violent public who had got incensed at his repeated mention of threats from Pakistan and Taliban. “We have reoriented his campaign. He had come from Delhi and was enticing votes on Mumbai attacks, national security and terrorism,” said Gajinder Singh, a local BJP leader.
The Indo-US nuclear deal, on which, both Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left Parties were out to pull down Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s government a few months ago, finds hardly any mention in the political lexicon now. Near Narora Atomic power plant, 50 kms from Aligarh city, when this writer asked a ‘dhaba’ owner what he meant from this nuclear deal, an interesting discussion ensued. Some truck drivers and locals participated. But all of them were in the impression that government was buying some nuclear bombs from America, which was earlier providing these bombs only to Pakistan.
While some of them were quite enthusiastic that these “bombs” will give India an edge over Pakistan, others maintained that instead of arsenal, India should have asked for some money or food grains from the US. Though the area is almost adjacent to a nuclear power plant, nearby villages are devoid of electricity. High tension lines emanating from the plant go straight to Delhi bypassing local villages, whose vast tracts of lands were, encroached to build this plant.
The nuclear deal and India’s relations with Israel are, however, giving sleepless nights to Congress party’s ally Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) deep down in Kerala. In the Muslim dominated Malabar region Left Front as well as local groups have made it an election issue against E. Ahmed, Minister of state for external affairs, an IUML candidate seeking re-election. While Jamat-e-Islami had been in the ideological forefront to contest communism in South Asia, interestingly it is aligning with the Left parties in Kerala to defeat IUML and Congress party.
Issue of Tamils in Sri Lanka has taken centre-stage in Tamil Nadu which sends 39 MPs to parliament. Political parties are competing to show their sympathy for the Tamil issue, openly favouring a separate Tamil nation (eelam) in the northern part of Sri Lanka. The future of the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) depends heavily on the election outcome in Tamil Nadu and nearby Andhra Pradesh. During the last elections, the UPA had swept these two states which account for some 70 seats. Supporting the Tamil eelam is of course problematic for Indian political parties because Colombo has launched a fresh operation against the Tamils and the Sri Lankan army hopes to clear the north of LTTE.
Terrorism, according to the Centre for Societies Development Studies (CSDS) survey, has emerged as an election issue only in Mumbai, Delhi and few other places. While the survey found that the electorate believed in the ruling coalition on foreign policy issues, the matter of Pakistan and the issue of national security were considered separate from other foreign policy concerns. The BJP seems to have positioned itself well to exploit these issues.
The Congress party in its manifesto promises to create specialised units to combat terrorism and provide all security forces with the latest equipment. It has also promised to provide identity cards to all after the 2011 census.
The BJP calls for improvement of anti-terror laws and promotion of cyber-counter terrorism. The main Left Party, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), promises to revamp the intelligence machinery and create a federal investigation agency. It also aims to abolish the newly formed anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Its junior partner, the Communist Party of India (CPI), calls for fighting terrorism politically. Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Rastriya Janata Dal (RJD) promises to extend anti-terror laws to include communalism.
The issue of Pakistan, despite the Mumbai attacks, has not achieved sharp salience. While the Congress party promises to strive for close economic relations with Pakistan, provided it dismantles the alleged terror networks operating from its soil, the BJP says there can be no comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan unless it dismantles the terrorist infrastructure on its soil.
The BJP also promises to enhance relations with Israel and strengthen ties with the Arab countries. Both the Left parties are promising to abrogate the defence framework agreement with the US and end Indo-US joint military exercises. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Mayawati says it would not allow any treaties that could lead to India’s subjugation by other states. The RJD calls for strengthening the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and maintaining good relations with neighbours.
Former vice chief of army staff Lt General Ramesh Thapar, talking to this correspondent, said that the Indian electorate was least interested in foreign policy issues since the day to day issues left people with little time to think beyond making ends meet. He, however, said there was need to bring awareness about foreign policy issues in the country. General Thapar maintains that even though political parties do devote a few pages to foreign policy in their manifesto, they do not take this area seriously.
He believes that there was a consensus in the country to have good and peaceful relations with neighbours. However, former secretary in the External Affairs Ministry Rajiv Sikri believes that in India, manifestos have no relevance to post-election governance. “Whichever party comes to power, formulates polices in accordance with national interests and the political environment around,” he says.

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