Sunday, June 26, 2005

Poker Faced

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar: Poker-FAced

A reshuffle should not be confused with a shuffle, nor a shuffle with ministry formation. When a new government is sworn in it is at the high point of energy and potential, having just been selected by a popular verdict.

It has the thrill of virginity and all the hopes of fresh consummation. The electorate, like any beaming mother-in-law, wants children as soon as possible. The electorate, like any gruff mother-in-law, sours quickly when it gets only bath water instead of a baby. A shuffle after a year’s waiting period (normal pregnancy pause) is proof that not everyone in government is delivering.

The impending shuffle of the Manmohan Singh ministry is going to be a limited one. None of the allies will release any quality portfolios they might have got unless they are offered better ones and there is no hope of that.

Lalu Prasad Yadav and Sharad Pawar therefore are locked into railways and agriculture for the life of this government. The Congress ministers have no locks. Only Dr Manmohan Singh seems to be secure behind a lock and there too Mrs Sonia Gandhi has the key. This will also be the first shuffle in history where the Prime Minister will be consulted while the final decision is taken elsewhere. This is logical. The Prime Minister did not win the election, so his power is checked by a balance.

A shuffle is an image from a card game, and who can deny that Delhi is the democracy’s most expensive casino? A deck of cards is a good analogy for government and not only because so many governments are a house of cards. There is an ace of spades which is more equal than the other aces; there are kings, queens and jokers. And anyone below the level of a joker is obviously around only to fill the room.

Mrs Gandhi holds the pack with nimble fingers. There may be lapses on her part in understanding the nuances of the complete Indian poker game but she deals fluently within the Congress culture. The two criteria, either of which can make a king into a joker and an ace impotent, are efficiency and loyalty. There used to be a third dimension, that of ideas, but ideas, like the fabled river Saraswati, have gone dry. The Ganga and Jamuna are efficiency and loyalty. For best results there must be confluence at Allahabad.

Since Dr Singh is safe, Mrs Gandhi has 51 cards to play with and 15 honours to juggle. After a year, some performance results are evident. The aces have not pulled their weight. Decency is no substitute for leadership in the home ministry, and while sartorial elegance has its merits, the country expects something more than a daily fashion statement from home minister Shivraj Patil. Kashmir has been gradually eased out of his beat, and the Northeast has frozen into a septic swamp under his watch. A crisis across the country, the Naxalite revolt, has reached epidemic proportions. Andhra is linked to the arc under the Himalayas and there is neither the reality nor the perception of a response from Delhi.

The Naxalite revolt is not another communal problem that will spurt and wither; it is a mighty fever that will turn India’s body politic into a shivering mess if not medicated. It began when Jawaharlal Nehru was in power. It was controlled when Indira Gandhi was in power. It could turn into a plague of Chairman Mao’s dreams when Sonia Gandhi is in power. Mao promised a prairie fire across India, and young men saluted his name and carried his torch in universities and villages. That fire is now in full rage and the home minister seems out of his depth.

The foreign minister on the other hand seems curiously incapable of differentiating between shallows and deep waters: he gives equal time to both so that he has time for neither. This is curious because Natwar Singh should know his job. The foreign ministry has been his life. His time seems to be allotted according to travel schedules rather than concerns. It can be a fatal weakness.

The third ace, Pranab Mukherjee, is simply not interested in his job. There is little to do in defence except ironically defend the status quo and that does not need his talents. After having been finance minister in his 40s he expects to be Prime Minister in his 70s. Arjun Singh should have been an ace, but he is only a king and the kings are in flux. P. Chidambaram’s budget was neither a dream nor a nightmare, merely a pleasant nap from which the economy could wake up at the first sign of drought.

But the real problem with the Congress element of the Manmohan Singh government is not individual variance but a collective fault. The Congress is in power because it was elected, directly, to the Lok Sabha. It has a government that has been elected, indirectly, to the Rajya Sabha.

The Lok Sabha is represented by the allies.

The Congress began with 17 Cabinet ministers. All the powerful positions are either with Rajya Sabha members or with those who add no value to the party despite being in the Lok Sabha: the names of Dr Manmohan Singh, Shivraj Patil, Natwar Singh, Arjun Singh, H.R. Bhardwaj, P.M. Sayeed, Ghulam Nabi Azad come at once to mind. Chidambaram, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Meira Kumar have won because of fortuitous alliances and are therefore politically insecure. Pranab Mukherjee entered the Lok Sabha for the first time, possibly with help from the Marxists. In any case he and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi represent a state where the Congress has just been relegated to third position in the election for mayor in Kolkata. Ghulam Nabi represents neither Kashmir nor Muslims and Sayeed neither tribals nor Muslims, which is why both prefer silence on issues of their community and cannot help the party get a single Muslim vote in UP and Bihar. Bhardwaj is a good minister but politically insignificant in Madhya Pradesh or indeed anywhere else. Mahavir Prasad, if you recognise his name, brings nothing from the Dalits although he is in the Cabinet because he is a Dalit. Sisram Ola is not, trust me, going to set Indian politics on fire.

Only three Congress Cabinet ministers lend genuine weight to the party at the electoral level: Shankersinh Vaghela, S. Jaipal Reddy and Kamal Nath. All are men who have fed from the grassroots, irrespective of where they may have come from. Vaghela and Reddy helped revive their party in their states and deserve their place in power; Kamal Nath lost his state but will be part of the revival if it is to come. The Congress is in power because it won handsomely in four states: Andhra, Assam, Delhi and Haryana. If you look at the numbers, Andhra alone has more seats than the other three combined. In other words, there is a great deal of work to be done.

The task before Sonia Gandhi is so obvious that it hardly needs reiteration. She has to revive the electoral fortunes of her party through a proper management of power. She needs ministers who can deliver in both their portfolios and their states. A Nehru or an Indira Gandhi Cabinet always kept a little space for techno-competence, a Krishnamachari or a Kumaramangalam, but it was packed with leaders who were there not because either liked them but because they could deliver for the party.

Indira Gandhi once put her worst enemy, a man who had contested on the Janata ticket against her in a crucial byelection from Chikmagalur, Veerendra Patil into her Cabinet. He was more shocked than anyone else. But that sustained the Congress in his state, Karnataka, so she did it. Who among Sonia Gandhi’s preferred aces can add a single vote to the party? Natwar Singh is an excellent individual, but Rajasthan is beyond his reach. We have discussed the value of Azad and Sayeed, the two prominent Muslims. That is only the beginning of the syndrome, hardly the end of it. This is not personal judgment. These are obvious facts.

Now consider this. It is common knowledge in Delhi that a shuffle is imminent, and lists of hopefuls are doing the rounds. No one knows what Mrs Gandhi is going to do, but we do hear the names of the hopefuls high on her alleged list. Which are the names at the Cabinet level? A.K. Antony, Satish Sharma, Motilal Vohra, Ambika Soni, Ahmed Patel. What do they have in common? You guessed it. They are all Rajya Sabha members. The same is true of candidates for minister of state. Being in the Rajya Sabha does not automatically make you irrelevant. Antony deserves a place in the system and Ambika Soni has done sterling work while guiding Sonia Gandhi through the political marsh. But if you consider the problem coolly, you have to conclude that whatever happens in this shuffle, it will be certain individuals who will gain and not the party. And if useless sycophants are rewarded rather than politicians of genuine capability then a state like Andhra could well plummet as Karnataka has done.

Is this because the Congress has no genuine leaders who connect with the voter? If that be true, then the party cannot be revived in the large areas of the country where it has become fallow. It is not obituary time yet for the Congress.

But. It came to power by accident. It should not lose power through complacency.

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