Byline by MJ Akbar: Grey Area
A politician cannot live above politics. Politics is a buyer’s market. A voter will not accept short change once he has made his bargain.
Whoever thought that the uses of adversity are sweet was never in Indian politics and must have been a Trappist monk of the more depressed sort. Indian politicians do not smile in adversity; they shrivel and turn suicidal. This is generic. Look anywhere, at nation or region, ideology or personality.
The Shiv Sena, once the roar of Maharashtra, now shrunk to a whimper by nepotism, has all the buoyancy of Napoleon’s army after a winter vacation in Moscow, feeding on the carcass of horses on which it once rode to victory. The rise of the Shiv Sena was once considered an astonishing and definitive fact of contemporary politics. Its collapse is equally astonishing, and equally definitive. Its fate is proof that the politics which dominated the decades between 1985 and 2005 is dead, and those who cannot rise above this past will wither in its aridity.
The Shiv Sena claims to be an ideological outfit. Its complete disarray makes a nonsense of such claims. Its success, it is now obvious, was built on more traditional pillars, of which anger against the establishment was paramount. Bal Thackeray’s personal charisma helped, but the victories of Narayan Rane prove that it was not a dominant charisma, in the sense that Mrs Indira Gandhi’s was. Leaders like Rane added significantly to the pool without getting anything like adequate credit. Bal Thackeray may have lost the game when he refused to become chief minister after the Sena-BJP alliance won Maharashtra. Thackeray is no Mahatma Gandhi or Jayaprakash Narayan. He was a politician who made promises. When the voter believed those promises, Thackeray backed out from personal responsibility and passed the buck to lieutenants with less than memorable names. A politician cannot live above politics. Politics is a buyer’s market. A voter will not accept short change once he has made his bargain.
The BJP has been overtaken by an epidemic of sulks, and undertaken by black humour. If it doesn’t watch out, it could hiccup itself to insignificance. The BJP doesn’t need a new president, although it has bothered to find one. It needs, first, to hire Greg Chappell, along with a clutch of Australian physiotherapists, who would do good at multiple levels. Chappell has a basic doctrine: Discipline above all else. Discipline in adversity begins with physical discipline. L.K. Advani is the only senior BJP leader with any discipline, so naturally they removed him. Adversity has unique ways of reinforcing itself.
Adversity is a transparent fact. The just-concluded AICC session in Hyderabad was a lake of lively wavelets with just one patch of gloom. The saddest face in the country today is that of Dharam Singh, the short-lived Congress chief minister of Karnataka.
The Congressman is the Brahmin of Indian politics. He believes that he rules by divine right, and occasional spells of misfortune constitute the arbitrary impact of Kaliyuga that might befall the best of the twice-born, and can be ameliorated by the requisite number of yagnas. Other castes, in this self-image, are welcome to share power, but as secondary or even subservient players. Now that the gods had restored the skewed balance of the world by restoring them to power in Delhi, the mood in Hyderabad was one of smug satisfaction. This may be perfectly acceptable when the party is having a party, but does not work on the morning after, as Karnataka showed.
The culture of alliance demands, for starters, respect for the ally. This is more important than the importance of portfolios. There may be give and take in portfolios, but there is no give and take in respect: that has to be a permanent foundation. But respect is the one thing that the Congress does not have on offer, to either friend or foe. Foes can do little about it, but friends can. Dharam Singh is in Bangalore’s departure lounge because he thought he could break an ally, Deve Gowda’s party, from within and occupy space thus made freshly available. Lalu Yadav is in a political dispensary in Patna because the Congress first tripped him badly enough to ensure that his leg was broken, and then offered a crutch in the sure knowledge that he could never hobble to victory. Sharad Pawar is shrewder at protecting his interests, but surely he can see the Congress elbow hammering away at his ribs. He may not feel the pain now, or pretend not to, but he will later. These stretching exercises by the Congress, ratified by the "Only-Congress" mood at Hyderabad, are logical, because the Congress is trying to reclaim space that was once its sole territory. However, it needs to be in power to expand its base at the expense of its allies. The loss in Karnataka is therefore a setback. Sour are the uses of adversity.
Assuming that the Trappist monk had not gone insane from prayer, guilt, self-imposed solitary confinement, silence and the awful grey cold of Europe, we need to consider why he thought the uses of adversity could be sweet. He clearly meant that sorrow and affliction were good for the soul. When out of power you have the opportunity to ponder over mistakes, correct deviations, find a new path forward even as you rediscover the will to return to primary objectives like service to man (and, if you are a monk, obedience to God). The last person to discover such virtues (including obedience to God) in adversity was Mahatma Gandhi, and not all the time, one may add. But now, alas, adversity only tends to encourage perversity. No front is free from dissension, and no back free from a bite.
In such conditions, you can hardly blame political parties from standing still and hoping for the best. This is fatalism, perhaps, but other options seem to them to be fatal. This wait-and-see philosophy emanates out of the principle that no one wins an election but someone loses it. Normally — unless, that is, you are Shiv Sena in Maharashtra or Congress in Bengal — this works. The AGP is waiting in Assam and will probably win the next Assembly election. However, it is not foolproof. The Akalis are waiting in Punjab, and Captain Amarinder Singh might keep them waiting awhile. But the best that can be said about waiting is that it is brain-dead politics. The sharp politicians are those who can see adversity approaching and have the skill to pre-empt it. Witness Deve Gowda.
So what is the best strategy for life in adversity? Honestly, I don’t know any that might be considered practical. However, I have just been reading about the worst possible one.
The ultimate book about adversity is surely a history of the Black Death, as the plague that wiped out half of Europe in the 14th century was known (The Great Mortality, by John Kelly). The plague started in Mongolia and reached, via the trade routes, the port of Caffa on the eastern edge of the Black Sea, controlled by the Genoese and rich with the wealth of silk from China, timber and fur from Russia, slaves from Ukraine, diamonds from Golconda and spice from Kerala and Ceylon. The overlords of the region were the Mongols, who had become Muslims by then in central Asia and south Russia. Tension between the Genoese and the Muslims sharpened into conflict and in 1343 Janibeg Khan drove the Italians to the point of surrender in the port. Just then the plague hit the Mongols. The Genoese went down on their knees to give thanks to the Almighty. They were premature. Janibeg Khan proved to be something of a germ-war strategist. He loaded infected corpses on to his catapults and flung the corpses into Caffa. The Genoese were decimated, and he ensured that both sides lost. That was how the Black Death entered Europe.
The image is drastic, and I certainly do not want to be taken too literally. But it seems to me that in the laissez faire mood currently prevalent in Indian politics, there is great danger of one side’s corpses infecting the body of the host. This is easier when there is no anti-body like ideology to fight against infection. Does a politician who has been worse than Narendra Modi in his invective against minorities suddenly become a devotee of Mahatma Gandhi because he can win on a Congress platform?
I hope the answer is more optimistic than my pessimism.
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