The nail-biting thriller that the Karnataka Assembly election turned out to be ended Saturday afternoon, but the story is far from over. It could easily have given a screen thriller a run for its money — indeed according to some reports, the TRP of news channels soared over the past few days since the results came out. The flurry of events — the controversial decision by Governor Vajubhai Vala to call the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to form the government, though it was minority with Congress and Janata Dal (Secular)’s post-poll alliance, the challenge to this decision in the Supreme Court, and the midnight trip of the Opposition legislators to Hyderabad to prevent any defection — has proved, yet again, how the Indian political process had become a high-stakes winner-takes-all game.
B S Yeddyurappa’s two-day stint as the chief minister of the southern state reminded me of Baazigar (1993). Soon after he quit, twitterati, sprung to action, with one describing his fate as: “Jeetke harney waley ko Yeddyurappa kehetey hain (The one who loses despite winning is called Yeddyurappa.)” This is, of course, a witty take on Shah Rukh Khan’s most popular dialogue from the film: “Haarke jeetney waley ko Baazigar kehetey hai (The one who wins despite losing is called Baazigar).” Directed by Abbas-Mastan and starring Kajol in a leading role, Baazigar is a revenge drama that altered the ethical standards of Bollywood for some time to come.
Hindi films with protagonists seeking revenge are, of course, a dime a dozen, the most famous being Sholay (1975) and Karz (1980). Till Baazigar, righteous protagonists fought to deliver justice either within the framework of the law, or like Thakur Baldev Singh in Sholay, had some boundaries that they would not cross. In the climax, he gives Gabbar Singh up to the police — the director and scriptwriters thought allowing Thakur to kill Gabbar would have compromised the moral fabric of the film. Murder, of course, was a taboo. It was okay to let the villain die a horrible death (Yadoon ki Baraat, 1973) or even shoot them, if the law is helpless (Zanjeer, 1973). Harming innocent family members of one’s enemy was out of the question: In Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), when Kishenlal (Pran) steals his deceitful boss’s daughter, Jennie (Parveen Babi), he does not kill her, but raises her like his own. What differentiated from the “good” from the “bad” was that their moral compass pointed duly north.
But Baazigar managed to take the ugly and make it attractive. In it, Shah Rukh Khan’s character, Ajay Sharma, will stop at nothing to get his revenge on Madan Chopra (Dalip Tahil), who had destroyed his family. Deceit, of course, is fair game, but Ajay will not bat an eyelid before committing murder — not only of Chopra, but also his daughter Seema (Shilpa Shetty). While the film is full of startling scenes, the most shocking one was where Ajay pushes Seema off the roof of a multi-storeyed building. He has taken her there with the promise of marrying her at the registry office, but he has no intention of doing so. Instead, he has already made her write a suicide note and is starting an affair with her sister (Priya).
One could argue that with this scene, Indian audiences experienced the loss of innocence. After this, everything is fair game. Ajay has no moral upper hand over Madan Chopra, he is as willing to play dirty. He plots his enemy’s fall to the minutest detail — and gets rid of anyone who comes in his way. It would not be too far stretched to argue that the reason the audiences accepted him so enthusiastically — Baazigar was the fourth-highest grossing film of the year and earned Shah Rukh Khan his first Filmfare — was because of the changing ethics in Indian society in the early 1990s.
The economy has just been liberalised, suddenly making it possible for Indians to aspire for the scale of success that would have been unimaginable to previous generations. In fact, the fight between Chopra and Sharma is over the control of a group of industries. Another film that seems to capture the zeitgeist perfectly is Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992): In it, too, Shah Rukh Khan’s character, Raju, will push the envelope of his ethics to achieve success. But, Raju is not Ajay; he has his limits and falls back in line in the end. Baazigar’s ethics are radically different: in its world, the winner took everything; the loser was left licking his wounds.
A similar winner-takes-all phenomenon seems to be dominating the national political landscape, and much of the blame for raising stakes can be laid squarely at the door of the BJP. In a recent article in The Wire, Harish Khare has argued: “In recent years, most abiding virtues (of democracy) were deemed malleable and expendable.” The BJP has played hard ball in state after state, snatching victory out of the mouths of the Opposition. Even in states where it did not get the mandate — Goa, Meghalaya — it has been more than willing to bend the rules to suit its ends. The Congress, on the other hand, has found itself sloth-footed in finding allies to seize power. The worst example of political convenience was in Bihar, where Chief Minister Nitish Kumar ditched elected ally, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and walked into the arms of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
But, the NDA juggernaut seemed to find its wheels stuck in the mud of karma in Karnataka. The witless decision of Governor Vala, once a minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state government in Gujarat, to call the BJP to form the government even when the Congress-JD(S) had the numbers has resulted utter embarrassment for the party. It has also opened a Pandora’s box, with the Congress in Goa and RJD in Bihar now staking claim to form the government as they are the largest parties in the respective state Assemblies. For now, the BJP and its allies might be able to stave off the challengers, but one wonders for how long?