Assam Elections 2021: Time to regroup

OPINION

Meenaxi Barkataki

[This might be the wrong moment to be talking about anything else besides the Covid pandemic, but since politics and our politicians are partly responsible for the desperate situation we are in at present, all the more reason to not postpone this discussion any further.]

The 2021 elections in Assam have come and gone. Many in Assam were wondering till the very last moment who they should vote for this time. They were tired of the excesses and misrule of the present BJP government and were looking for an alternative. But the Congress seemed too caught up in their own internal problems both at the centre and in the state to be able to provide a viable alternative. The news of formation of some new regional parties gave some hope, although it was not clear to the general public why we needed more than one new party to fill the void that the AGPs total surrender to the BJP seemed to have left behind. Over the years, the people of Assam had learnt the hard way not to trust the AGP and hence were a little skeptical of its newer avatars. But they were still hoping to see some fresh commitment in the new faces. But the facts that not one but several parties were formed just a few months prior to the elections ostensibly for no other reason but that there were too many with chief ministerial aspirations, that they could not come to any electoral adjustment with one another to put up a combined front, and that there was not enough time left for these parties to explain what they stood for and why they were different from the others, and that most voters had no clue about who their candidates were and what their credentials were, meant that most voters who were disillusioned with the ruling dispensation and was looking for change landed up literally playing ina-mina-mana-mo with the buttons on the EVMs or landed up either pushing the NOTA button or voting for the candidate who seemed like having the best chance of defeating the saffron brigade, irrespective of party affiliation.

After casting their votes many voters expressed their anguish at the fact that there was not much to choose between any of the many candidates in the fray. And as for the new parties, except for a handful of high profile candidates, no one had any idea who the candidates were and what they stood for. And all through the run-up to the elections, while most candidates and the party leaders spoke in abstract and obtuse terms about jati-mati-bheti as well as regional identity, swabhiman, atma gaurav, jatir satta etc. not one party spelled out what actual executable actions these high sounding terms would result in, once the party was elected to power. Most of the speeches were devoted to mudslinging of and personal attacks on the opponents; while the ruling party restricted their electioneering to making fun of their opponents and harping on the many yojanas they had cooked up at the last minute to create beneficiaries out of everyone who could be bought, the opposition parties seemed to be on the back foot and lost in internal contradictions;  there was no talk of policy, of what they wanted to change, of what they would do differently in case they came to power. It was a huge opportunity missed.

Why the current lot will not do

Jatir gaurav, swabhiman, atmabishwas etc. are all very important issues but what about more basic issues such as food, water, electricity, health, education, sanitation, housing, transport, livelihoods… and in Assam, floods? We are now more than 20 years into the 21st century but there are millions who still do not have even the basic roti-kapra-aur-makan, and please don’t think I am a Congressi for using that phrase. We need a party that acts, not parties that spend all their energy mouthing high sounding words and belittling their opponents. We need a party who will stop talking and do something to change the life of the citizens for the better in concrete terms. We need a party that will start by taking care of the basic needs of every citizen and ensure clean, efficient and good governance. We need a party that will promise to make life better not just for themselves, their friends and cronies but for everyone in the state, the poorest first. We need a party that acknowledges that being in power does not mean being above the law, that rules and regulations apply to everyone not just the ordinary citizens; that quality education and basic health care are basic rights and must be made available to all. We need a party that acknowledges that every person living in Assam has a right to be heard and to be given access to the basic facilities that will allow him to work and to live with dignity.

And this is not asking for the impossible: in fact the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi (and perhaps a few other regional parties like Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal in Odisha) has already set an example. Granted, the AAP is far from perfect and have quite a few internal problems, but they seem to understand and recognize the importance of tackling real issues that have a direct impact on the lives of the ordinary people living in Delhi – like improving education and health infrastructure, providing cheap clean water, uninterrupted electricity, better sanitation and security, efficient public transport. In just a few years they have brought about a complete transformation in the standards and performance of the government schools in Delhi, they have brought about many schemes that directly impact those who need it most. Kejriwal might not be everyone’s darling but his years in government service have given him enough knowledge of the system to know where the problems are and what needs to be done to improve it. They came to power on the twin slogans of zero corruption and good governance and they have come a long way towards fulfilling their promises. And while doing all this, they have kept a low profile, have remained accessible to the general public and have taken a direct hands-on approach of doing whatever is possible rather than doing nothing and complaining about what is not possible. And Kejriwal is one of the few leaders (including West Bengal’s fiery Mamata Banejee) who at least have the courage to own up and say sorry when they make a mistake.

That space for a party like the AAP is still vacant in Assam. Not one of our existing parties can deliver on issues that really matter to the average citizen, simply because there is too much bluster, too much baggage, too much noise and too little commitment to taking the more difficult path of actually trying to do something rather than merely pretending to be doing so. Most of our politicians are too arrogant, too corrupt and too self-serving to understand the responsibilities that come with their elected positions. Student leaders and their gurus may be good leader material but while the students are possibly too eager to succeed, their teachers (from college and university) are perhaps too theoretical to be able to guide them effectively. Self styled Robinhoods are not the answer either, because we need to work within the system and strengthen it, not create parallel systems. In any case, if the election speeches are anything to go by, none of these new outfits want to talk about actual problems, they are content to talk in the same language as those they seek to replace. That is not what we want.

What we are looking for

So we have to look elsewhere. We need a band of committed individuals who are not really politicians in the sense that they do not really care too much about winning elections (though that might also be necessary at some point) and their own personal political futures, but who really care about creating a functioning and transparent system of governance in the state. We need professionals, officers and experts who know the existing system and its problems, and who also know how to solve the problems and also want to solve them. We need individuals who are not corrupt and who will promise accountability and transparency in their public actions. We need leaders who are not afraid to admit that they have made a mistake when they do so, who are willing to listen to constructive suggestions made by their opponents and treat them with respect, instead of constantly trying to ridicule or vilify them. We also need leaders who are grounded and who are willing to listen to the problems of the common people, who can show empathy and who keep promises. We need people who are not afraid to dirty their hands, and people who do not need to pretend to be sarbajantas. We need people who are not afraid of becoming unpopular or losing the patronage of the rich business class while trying to do what is right for the weaker sections of the population.

Of course we have bigger problems to do with migration, to do with identity, language, homeland, cultural extinction etc. but the first task of a government is to provide good governance for all its people. And the government must not try to do everything on their own – for example, to tackle floods, the government must work in tandem with experts in relevant organizations and all stakeholders to find the best way forward. And then have the commitment to execute the plans agreed upon. No point talking big and then doing nothing, even while people of the state continue to suffer, and governance is reduced to self-propaganda for those in power. We need a party whose basic ideology is to serve, a party which focuses on the real problems that people have and which works towards revamping the existing system so that a better life can eventually be ensured for everyone living here.  We also need a party whose members are decent, humble and honest human beings who do not need to hide from the people who elected them. We want some decency to be brought back to the public domain so that the dirt and filth that politics currently is enveloped in starts to clear.

Am I being too naïve? Perhaps I am but the time has come for every person who wants to enter politics to refuse to play the game according to the existing rules. Is all this a bit too much to ask? Perhaps it is, but even though it might be hard to find many willing to stick their heads out, I believe there might be a few who might be ready to do so. Can we not start with them and see where we get? Many will say one cannot do politics without big money. But that is the case only because we have millions in our state whose votes can and are routinely bought. But this new party must promise to put an end to such vote-bank politics.   Many people in Assam are completely fed up with our existing lot of self-serving, corrupt and power-drunk politicians who will stop at nothing to remain in power. This section of people will happily support, I hope, any group who promises to start at the bottom with the more basic problems even though they might be more intractable, and who promises not to put their own interests first. We need some new faces — committed, level-headed and not afraid to work hard — to come forward and join politics (just as Mohua Moitra did in W. Bengal); we also need some mature professionals who are willing to contribute their time and expertise to help the new entrants find the best solutions to the problems at hand; we also need some administrators who know the ropes and can help the new entrants to understand how the system works, where the loopholes are and how best to plug them.

That is what I at least had hoped one of the new parties would promise to do, but no, they do not know what they want to do, the only thing they want to do is come to power.  We have left our state and its affairs in the hands of greedy vultures for too long. It is high time some concerned citizens came forward to reclaim it, to help to stem the rot and help to restore meaning and relevance to the system.  True we shall perhaps have to contend with the present lot for another term. But one can start doing the ground work, one can start drawing up an agenda that will bring about real change for the better in Assam, one can start preparing for the fight, so that next time, instead of just calling the opposition names, one can tell the voter about plans, policies and aspirations, so that when she goes to vote the voter who is seeking change will know where to cast her vote.

Of course actually doing as I suggest will not be easy and there will be a lot more that will need to be done to give flesh to these ideas. But can we not start a conversation at least? Comments and suggestions welcome.

Meenaxi Barkataki is Research Fellow, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology Vrije Universiteit (VU), Amsterdam