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‘Feeling Good’

By Beena Sarwar

17 May, 2004
The News

A journalist friend in the UK dashed off an email in the wake of the BJP’s electoral defeat, quoting West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya: ‘I’m feeling good - 100 per cent!’ Hailing from West Bengal, he follows events there closely: "The left front has totally driven out the BJP from West Bengal and has registered its best ever performance in a general election (59 seats in Parliament).... That loud sigh of relief you hear comes all the way from London..."

Shabnam Hashmi, a New Delhi-based activist who has been at the forefront of the fight against the BJP is "too happy to write". I can imagine her practically speechless with joy at the defeat of the communal forces that have for the last so many years held India hostage to their bigotry and violence.

The rise in spirits was felt all the way here in Karachi, starting Wednesday afternoon with a cell phone text-message from women’s rights activist Tahira Abdullah in Islamabad: "BJP LOSING; VAJPAYEE RESIGNING. MUBARAK".

The news perked up my father, a semi-retired doctor and he immediately switched on the television. We were greeted by scenes of jubilant Congress supporters going wild as reporters struggled to explain away this unexpected and ‘stunning’ defeat. "The first thing the new government should do," proclaimed my father, "is to establish a judicial commission of inquiry into the Gujarat massacres."

There are lessons to be learnt from the results of the Indian elections. Outgoing Prime Minister Vajpayee is reported to have wept on learning of the carnage - but he did nothing to contain Chief Minister Narender Modi, who has been accused of direct involvement in the massacres. The voters, Hindu and Muslim, have rejected their policies of divisiveness along communal lines.

Regarding relations with Pakistan, Vajpayee did certainly initiate the famous ‘bus diplomacy’ and even visited the Minar-e-Pakistan as a symbol of India’s acceptance of Pakistan — but it was also he who ordered sparked off fresh tensions by ordering the nuclear tests of 1998 soon after assuming power.

Leaders - self-styled or elected - must accept responsibility for the actions of those they lead. Vajpayee’s television address was a model of restraint and dignity, an example of how a statesman should behave in defeat. Pakistanis look forward to the day when they too are allowed the satisfaction of voting out those they elected, without the army stepping in.

Secondly, a government is responsible to all its citizens and not just a privileged few. The "India Shining" campaign included the much-hyped information technology sector that employs less than a million people. One of the consequences of massive industrialization is the diversion of electricity from residential areas, as is happening in Bangalore, the home of the IT revolution. At a meeting in Kathmandu recently, Bangalore-based activist and journalist Sakuntala Narasimhan talked about the difficulties of frequent, unannounced power breakdowns and cuts as electricity is diverted for the multinational companies.

Shakuntala and millions of others refused to be fooled by the ‘India Shining’ campaigns. Pritam Rohila, who runs the USA-based postings list Association for Communal Harmony in Asia (ACHA) comments: "The increasing number of luxury products in a few million urban rich and middle class homes has not made the rural-poor feel good." Not in India, and not in Pakistan either, where material goods are being hawked by lower interest rates and leasing options.

Further, skewed ‘globalisation’ has led to ‘reforms’ that don’t benefit the majority. Instead, growing privatisation and a corresponding reduction in jobs is leading to more unemployment and poverty. In addition, two-thirds of Indians and Pakistanis depend upon agriculture but find themselves at the receiving end of hostile government policies. In a democracy, this has consequences. "There is almost no government in the country that has ill-treated its farmers and not paid the price," notes the well-known journalist P Sainath, commenting on the increase in farmers’ suicides in India over the past six to eight years (‘Mass media vs mass reality’, The Hindu, May 14, 2004).

In Pakistan too, farmers’ suicides and suicides by the unemployed have been on the rise. In some cases, parents have killed themselves along with their children in order to escape poverty and hunger. While many such cases go unreported, at least nine such cases were reported around the country last year in which 20 children died, according to a compilation by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

While the Indian media by and large chose to overlook such factors and predicted a BJP victory, at least some had their nose to the ground. Bharat Bhushan, Editor of the Telegraph’s Delhi edition has won "a couple of bottles of scotch, a dinner and an apology from several friends who insisted that Vajpayee would somehow come back." At a media party in New Delhi last Saturday, his view was supported by a bureaucrat, who predicted that the National Democratic Alliance would get about 184 seats — it got 187. Feeling good!

The writer is a staff member