Sunday, April 30, 2006

A Bridge too Near

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: A Bridge too Near

If there is the faint sound of a wobble in the Manmohan Singh government, it has nothing to do with the states. The Prime Minister’s credibility has been dribbling away ever since he decided to make the nuclear deal with the United States the central achievement of his government without thinking through the consequences of unsustainable triumphalism, or indeed the nuances of policy-making in Washington. His worst mistake was to hint that opposition to this deal was "communal", since some Muslim organisations had protested against George Bush. Credibility is all he had. If that goes he has little else.

Those who play bridge know that there are two routes to success. Either the combination of 26 cards on your side (13 each with you and partner) matches so well that even a two or a three bring in a trick; or the honours are so dominant that they make the opposition irrelevant. If you have both, of course, then you bid Grand Slam with a smile.

Elections used to be an honours game. The aces — from Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi to Jyoti Basu — used to dominate the electoral game. Their charisma was the decisive factor. I was going to use "decisive edge" but it was always far more than an edge.

It is true that Nehru and Indira Gandhi might have won nothing without the broad base of the Congress they inherited from Mahatma Gandhi, and Jyoti Basu would have been merely a brilliant barrister without the party structure created by Promode Dasgupta and his selfless contemporaries, but equally, the Congress and the CPI(M) were sustained by the magnetic leadership of such aces.

The Marxists were sensible enough to appreciate that a combination of distribution and honours was unbeatable. So they retained the United Front even when they had the numbers to rule Bengal alone, and would not let Jyoti Basu retire even when he wanted to. (Not every politician thinks power is synonymous with life.)

But the aces have gone, or left the table; electoral bridge is now a largely distribution game. The allies make the difference, and even the smallest card, with one per cent of the vote, matters.

Few elections have been as fascinating, even breathtaking, as the one being fought currently in Tamil Nadu, because, unusually, everything matters. Our opinion poll, done by ACNielsen, believes that 48% of the vote will go to the alliance led by Jayalalithaa and 47% to her foes, led by M. Karunanidhi. That is a dead-heat, given that the standard margin of error is plus-minus 2.07%. Jayalalithaa personally commands 46% of the vote, but if Vaiko, with 1%, had not switched sides and joined her, the script might have become lop-sided. It is a tribute to Jayalalithaa’s sagacity and character that she never permitted her ego to come in the way of a political alliance: there are leaders in Delhi who could learn a lesson or two from her. She knew the statistics. In 2001 she won 132 of the 234 seats with 31.44% of the vote, and DMK got 31 seats with 30.92% of the vote. A difference of half a per cent in vote share meant a gap of 101 seats in the Assembly. Such are the tyrannies of first-past-the-post system.

The DMK is more dependent on allies than Jayalalithaa. It has 42% support, but is kept in the race by 3% from the Congress and 2% from the PMK. The Left is statistically invisible but has its role in key constituencies.

If the cards on both sides are evenly matched, then it is the aces that will make the difference. Karunanidhi might have made a fatal mistake when he projected his son M.K. Stalin as the face of the future. There was a visible sag in the DMK momentum at the start of the campaign, during the Stalin phase, and it is only when Dayanidhi Maran came into the spotlight did his alliance emerge from the shadows. Irrespective of the results in May, this Assembly election will have marked Maran’s evolution as a leader of his state. If his party does not recognise this, the smile on Jayalalithaa’s face could become even larger.

For she has the clear edge when it comes to personality. All the pointers in the opinion poll confirm this. Her party is four points ahead of the DMK only because of her (since it is a personality-driven business, if her party were to lag, it would also be because of her). She has only two allies; the DMK has half a dozen were anyone to count, and yet she is ahead. It may be a marginal lead, but Tamil Nadu is all about margins that transmigrate into broad sweeps. Two years ago to the month she suffered what was widely advertised as a death blow, losing every single seat in the elections to the Lok Sabha. To revive from that graveyard needed miraculous levels of self-belief and a head as cool as the South Pole.

The key statistic is surely that 90% of those who voted for her in that failed election are still with her, and only 4% have switched to the DMK. In comparison, there has been a switch of 8% from the DMK to her, and the DMK’s retention rate is 86%.

Unusually, both sides have been in power during the last two years. Jayalalithaa of course remained chief minister, while the DMK joined the Union government with key portfolios. Jayalalithaa used power to better public effect than her opponents. 52% of the people think that she has been either a "very good" or "good" chief minister; between 60 and 70 per cent believe that the three basics, drinking water, electricity and road conditions, have improved under her watch, and a clear majority thinks she did good work during the tsunami and the floods. These are the pillars of good governance. Unsurprisingly then, she has the lead among the young. The young poll more heavily than the middle-aged.

So what happens if ACNielsen is right and Jayalalithaa forms the government in Chennai again? A whole lot of nothing, actually. A few hours of genuflection, and life goes back to normal. There is no logical reason for turmoil. The Congress, after two years in power and daily megaphone publicity, will not have increased its vote share anywhere, and slumped in Kerala and Assam. Despite a fractured and unimpressive Opposition, the Congress will probably need a coalition in Assam, turning one more one-party state into coalition country. In Bengal and Kerala, the party remains a lower single-digit fact. So why should parties which have nothing to gain from uncertainty, risk the comfort of power in Delhi? The only partners of the ruling coalition in Delhi to gain will be the Left, which will add a Kerala wing to its Bengal fortress. The Left has no history of deliberately destabilising any of its comfort zones. A cat that gets cream late in life doesn’t believe in nine lives.

If there is the faint sound of a wobble in the Manmohan Singh government, it has nothing to do with the states. The Prime Minister’s credibility has been dribbling away ever since he decided to make the nuclear deal with the United States the central achievement of his government without thinking through the consequences of unsustainable triumphalism, or indeed the nuances of policy-making in Washington. His worst mistake was to hint that opposition to this deal was "communal", since some Muslim organisations had protested against George Bush. Credibility is all he had. If that goes he has little else. It was always a comforting myth that leadership is possible without understanding politics; that this, in fact, might be a virtue. He must be the first Prime Minister of India who would cancel a series of election meetings in a vital state like Bengal in order to attend an economic meeting in Hyderabad. Others would have done both, not one at the expense of the other.

A government is as strong or weak as its focal point. That focal point is blurred. Foreign policy is in shambles. Domestic policy is shooting off in different directions, depending on the predilections of Cabinet ministers.

Manmohan Singh might be a good man, but that, alas, is not good enough reason to be Prime Minister of India.

The Government of India is a pack of cards without an ace.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

A Toast to Your Majesty

Byline by MJ Akbar: A Toast to your Majesty

It’s Friday the 21st of April in England, the sun is jesting with the rain and a faint chant rises from the television screen: "Two ... four ... six ... eight ... who do we appreciate? The Queen!" It is Queen Elizabeth II’s 80th birthday and we are all children now, staring at Windsor Castle.

Sky News, the tough TV channel, has an "exclusive" interview with the Queen’s younger son, Andrew, the Duke of York, and he takes us to an exclusive tour of the mailbox he made when he was nine, and which has been preserved, possibly because it was the most useful thing he has done. A man wearing a paper Union Jack hat tells us breathlessly that he has spoken to the Queen for the 114th time since 1982. He must be the royal version of the English cricket team’s Barmy Army. A schoolgirl who offered flowers to her monarch reveals, once again exclusively, what the Queen told her: "Are they from the garden?" Even the child sensed that there might be something less than adequate in the quote. "And that’s all," she added.

The Queen’s minders were politically correct. Once upon a time, many history books ago, the monarch of Great Britain had all the colours of the world among her subjects. The Queen of Britain still has all the colours of the world among her subjects, but they all live in England instead of across the globe. The sun definitely sets upon the British empire these days. A black girl in a pretty frock curtseys and presents flowers; children of South Asian origin, on holiday from school, line up among the 20,000 or so who have come to cheer their queen. There are gun salutes at the Queen’s various residences. Since we see them on the small screen, there is a feel of toy guns on doll grass booming across Lego ramparts.

Prince Charles, who has been teased by the cartoonists in the morning papers as the long-suffering heir of the Eternal Mother, pays an impressive tribute, but the theme is mother rather than queen, reinforcing the maternal and bringing the Queen into every mother’s heart. He recalls the child who waited anxiously for mama’s phone calls from exotic countries, a crackle travelling at pre-computer pace and a Marconi tremble. He mentions a vignette: before her coronation Queen Elizabeth tried on her crown to check its weight and size. One doesn’t want to be surprised, even by a crown.

It’s sycophancy, but it is endearing and it works. There is no logic to it, but that is obviously its strength. Does the British monarchy work precisely because it is powerless? Yes, of course. People cannot hate anyone without power, and the British royal family wisely edged away from politics before it could become politics’ victim. Instead of power, it has influence, and it would be foolish to underestimate the depth of this influence.

If only someone could convey this simple fact to the foolish man who pretends to be a king in Kathmandu.

We discussed the mysteries of the charisma over a jolly lunch at a Scottish fish restaurant across the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. My friend of thirty years, Alexander, was dressed with the careful scruffiness of the British upper class. His elder brother John, who is 78, buys rare books (which he buys from the widows of Cambridge dons) as a hobby and sells them for a modest living, offered a loyal toast. John then explained how to recognise a voice on the telephone that had been outsourced to Bangalore. It was the only one, he pointed out, with a proper upper class British accent.

Last week Alexander was at the funeral of Lady Heskett, widowed at 25, but lived to a grand old age as owner of one of the greatest homes in Britain. Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave the funeral oration and told a charming anecdote. When Edward Heath, a bachelor, became Prime Minister, he often asked grand Conservative ladies to be official hostess at his weekend retreat when he had important guests. Mrs Indira Gandhi had come to dine at Chequers, and was being very critical of the British Raj. When Lady Heskett, her hostess, could take it no more, she pointed out that there was at least one thing that Mrs Gandhi could be deeply thankful to the British for. What was that, asked Mrs Gandhi. "We abolished suttee, didn’t we?" said Lady Heskett.

Doubtless the conversation moved to other topics after that.

Class always wafts on wit. John wondered if I remembered the old Aga Khan, mentor of the Muslim League in pre-partition India and as rotund as wealth can make a potentate. My knowledge of the Aga Khan is theoretical, but John recalled a delegation of British Members of Parliament who went to visit India before independence. There was the usual obligatory visit to the Taj, along with intense political consultations with leaders of all parties. When the delegation returned to Britain, a reporter asked a Labour MP what had been his most memorable experience in India. "The Aga Khan by moonlight," replied the Labour MP.

Enough said.

My own encounter with the British monarchy has been, fortunately for me, limited. Queen Elizabeth and her German-blood consort Prince Philip were visiting India, and I was one of the small crowd invited to the reception at the residence of the British High Commissioner in Delhi. Dress was formal. I wore a long silk kurta, which was about as formal as I was inclined to get in those days, and since the Gurkhas at the gate didn’t frown, I thought I had passed the formality test. I joined the queue to receive their majesties. Everyone got a perfunctory fleeting smile, which was nice and gracious. Prince Philip paused in front of me, took a second look at my kurta, standing out among the suits, and wondered what manner of native dress I was wearing. Irresponsible by desire and irreverent by professional ethics, I suggested that the natives were in charge now, weren’t they? There was steel in Prince Philip’s subsequent fleeting smile.

Both Britain and the British monarchy are must improved by loss of empire. Britain is no longer in the colonies, but the colonies are now in Britain. That seems fair and equitable. "Your Majesty" is still in business. A toast to the Queen, Alexander and John, on her 80th birthday, but may it remain your majesty rather than mine.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Prophet Motive

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: The Prophet Motive

The RSS chief, Mr K.S. Sudarshan, has made the very interesting suggestion that Muslims should accept Lord Krishna "as one of the prophets" sent by Allah. If this is all it takes to unravel the complexities and ease the tensions of the Hindu-Muslim relationship in India, then consider the problem solved. This is the easy part, particularly since the RSS chief, very wisely, did not ask Muslims to accept the divinity of Lord Krishna.

Muslims believe that Allah is the creator of the entire universe, and it is axiomatic that he sent His messengers to all the people since Creation, and not only to Muslims.

The 47th verse of the Surah Yunus in the Quran says: "To every people (was sent) a messenger: when their messenger comes (before them), the matter will be judged between them with justice, and they will not be wronged." Since transliteration into English is never completely adequate, Abdullah Yusuf Ali explains this verse: "Every people or generation or nation had its message or messenger: Allah revealed Himself to it in some way or another. If that messenger was ignored or rejected, or his message was twisted or misused, the Day of Reckoning will come, when perfect justice will be done and the whole truth revealed."

The 36th verse of the Surah Al Nahl (The Bees) says: "For we assuredly sent amongst every people a messenger (with the command), ‘Serve Allah and eschew evil’." Yusuf Ali adds a footnote: "Even though Allah’s Signs are everywhere in nature and in men’s own conscience, yet in addition Allah has sent human messengers to every people to call their attention to the good and turn them from evil."

The 78th verse of Surah 40, known as both Ghafir (Forgiver) and Al Mumin (The Believer), says: "We did aforetime send messengers before thee: of them there are some whose story we have related to thee, and some whose story we have not related to thee." Yusuf Ali elaborates: "Allah sent messengers of His Truth to every people. There are some whose names are known to us through the Holy Quran, but there are a large number whose names are not made known to us through that medium. We must recognise the truth wherever we find it."

The fourth verse of Surah 14, Ibrahim, says: "We sent not a messenger except (to teach) in the language of his (own) people, in order to make (things) clear to them." Yusuf Ali explains: "If the object of a message is to make things clear, it must be delivered in the language current among the people to whom the messenger is sent. Through them it can reach all mankind."

There is repeated affirmation in the Holy Book that Allah sent prophets before the last of His messengers, Muhammad, across generations and nations, and to "every people". India has always been a great cradle, nursery, school and university of human civilisation, and it is therefore inevitable that messengers must have come to this land and its people as well.

Some Islamic scholars believe that there is a direct reference to Gautam Buddha in the Quran. Verse 85 of Surah 21 speaks of "Ismael and Idris and Dhu al-Kifl; all were the patient ones". Verse 48 of Surah 38 lauds the last-named further: "And make mention of Ismail and Al Yasaa and Dhu al-Kifl, for they were among the best". Dr Zohurul Hoque, who has translated the Quran, believes that Dhu al-Kifl is the Dweller (Dhu) of Kapil, or Kapil Vastu and refers to the Buddha, who was of course born in Kapilavastu. There are other interpretations, but at least Buddha is included among the options.

The verse from Surah 14, on the languages spoken by prophets, is particularly relevant since it clarifies that prophets did not speak only Arabic or Aramaic; they spoke the language of the people they were sent to. They were enjoined to take the message to all mankind, and mankind, untied in ancestry, is divided by language. This verse extends the ambit and specifies it as well. There is no reason why a prophet could not have spoken Sanskrit.

Take another look at this verse: "We did aforetime send messengers before thee: of them there are some whose story we have related to thee, and some whose story we have not related to thee." In other words, while the narrative of some prophets (Moses or David or Solomon) is told in detail in the Quran, the story of other prophets has not been told. In other words, there are prophets of Allah who have not been included in the narrative of the Quran. It is entirely plausible that a prophet sent to India has not been mentioned in the Holy Book, but that does not diminish either his role or his prophecy.

Krishna lived at least two millennium earlier than the Prophet Muhammad. This is important, because if he had come after the prophet of Islam, then Muslims would never have found Mr Sudarshan’s idea acceptable. In Surah 33, Al Azhab, verse 40, Muhammad is described as "the messenger of Allah, and the seal of the prophets". The metaphor of a seal is self-evident. The seal marks the completion of a document; there can be no further additions. Islam is also very clear that no man can be considered divine, and this is one of its principal arguments against the Church, which made Jesus a part of the Trinity. Allah is indivisible, and His creation must be ipso facto inferior to the Almighty. However, Mr Sudarshan has not demanded that Muslims consider Lord Krishna a god. So once again, there is no argument.

But I wonder if such happy agreement, always very welcome, is sufficient. Muslims revere Jesus as one of the greatest prophets of Islam; the Quran (Surah 6:47) reaffirms the immaculate conception of Mary, and says Allah created him as He did Adam. But this has not prevented hostility between Muslims and Christians.

While religious identity is an important and often vital component of mass mobilisation, faith and its nuances have rarely been a source of continued conflict between men. Occasional war, yes; but continuous war is fought over material possessions, like land and natural resources and tax revenues. One of the more remarkable facts of India is that while Hindus and Muslims may have been derogatory about one another, they have never insulted each other’s faith in a thousand years of literature. They have vilified or glorified kings and heroes, but there has been no slander against the deeply revered symbols of faith. Secularism does not mean that we abandon religion. Secularism is the right of every faith to co-exist as an equal, on its own terms. Secularism is the ability to leave space for the other.

The true problem is not what happens in the after-life, but what happens in this life. There are two key words. One is security: Muslims have every right, as equal citizens of a proud nation, to physical and economic security. An Indian economic boom must be equally their economic boom. The second is violence. No Indian, irrespective of creed or caste, whether Muslim or Hindu, has a right to seek answers through communal violence. No Indian politician, Hindu or Muslim, must be allowed to wash his hands in the blood of innocent victims to lubricate his passage upwards on the career ladder. These are the problems that need the attention of not just Mr Sudarshan but every leader who claims to have the concern of the country in his mind. The merits of Mr Sudarshan’s idea are psychological, but that does not make them a negative. He is at least attempting to place one stone of a difficult bridge over an unhappy divide.

To judge where this thought might come, look at where it has come from.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

49.5% of how much?

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline By MJ Akbar : 49.5% of how much?

Caste is a fact, but is it a virtue? Government policy should seek to eliminate differences rather than consolidate them. And is caste the only statistic that the mighty government has? Is there no other definition of poverty?

Pardon me, but I have this inconsiderate habit of looking at the wrong end of a statistic. Let me explain.

When I hear the Honourable Arjun Singh declare that 49.5% of our best and brightest college students shall henceforth come from a particular combination of castes, I want to know not what the 49% consists of, but what that combination of castes constitutes.

Whenever there is a caste-based allotment of the fish and loaves of Indian development, it is ipso facto an allotment to Hindus, for the simple and obvious reason that caste is a Hindu phenomenon. Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, to name the three prominent Indian minorities, have no caste. Some formula-fudgers have tried to solve this dilemma by the theory that the poorer minorities, all converts, have retained a sub-identity of caste beneath their new faith.

This is the kind of thing that sounds very nice in Delhi but is a hoax outside, where real life begins. It is a linguistic tidbit thrown towards minorities who have been excluded from the meal at the main table. It is only partially true, and ineffective for at least two reasons. Minorities have a near impossible task in finding evidence for a sub-identity; and when they do it is generally from the bottom of the heap, which means they do not get a place in the limited queue. If the Honourable Arjun Singh can find one Muslim who has been admitted into a quality educational institution because he is a "Backward", it would be welcome addition to my knowledge.

Politics is a more fluid science than demographics. But when Mayawati strategises about elections, she does not automatically include "sub-identity Muslims" as part of her Dalit vote bank, nor does Mulayam Singh Yadav assume that "sub-identity Muslims" are an extension of his "Backward Yadav" vote base. They know that these are separate interests and they make a conscious attempt to harmonise varied interests on a common platform. But when it comes to allocation in educational institutions or jobs, the harmony becomes distinctly atonal.

Imran Ali and Yoginder Sikand have reported the findings of a recent study done by them, in collaboration with ActionAid (India), Jahangirabad Media Institute and Indian Social Institute, New Delhi to examine the "social, economic and educational" condition of Indian Muslims. A few, necessarily brief, quotations from their report:

Some ‘low’ caste Muslim respondents pointed out that while their castes had been included in the official list of Other Backward Castes, they had not benefited from this provision. Government facilities for the OBCs, they said, had been cornered almost entirely by more numerous and influential Hindu OBCs… The high degree of Muslim poverty is evidenced from the fact that 41.9% respondents (in rural areas) have a total annual household income of less than Rs 10,000, 17.5% between Rs 10,001-Rs 20,000, 5.4% between Rs 20,001-Rs 30,000 and only 0.1% between Rs 30,001-Rs 40,000… Many Muslim families complain of being deliberately neglected in government programmes meant for alleviating rural poverty… Overall, as this survey suggests, Muslims are among the most marginalised communities in India in terms of economic and educational indices and also in terms of political empowerment… A host of factors, as we have tried to show, have been responsible for the marginalisation of Muslims as a whole. This calls for urgent steps to ameliorate their condition.

According to the 2001 census, Hindus constitute 80.5% of India’s population, Muslims 13.4%, Christians 2.3%, Sikhs 1.9%. Others make up the remaining two per cent. The minorities are not included in reservations, nor are the upper castes: between them, the minorities and the upper castes would add up to 40%. So in real terms, 60% per cent of India is being guaranteed 50% of the seats in the best educational institutions. Do the math.

But mathematics is not a principle. What is the principle, if there is any? To help the underprivileged? Then why are India’s minorities excluded from the bonanza?

Is it impolite, or, worse, unpatriotic, to raise such a question? A subconscious fear is exploited whenever Muslims make any economic demand, like reservations, that they are reviving the ghost of partition. 1947 is over. Anyone born after India became free will be 60 years old next year. How long is the political class going to fool Indian Muslims by frightening them in public and purchasing their ever-available leaders in private?

I have never been comfortable with minorityism. In fact, I have tended to anger Indian Muslims by asking them a difficult question: at what stage of their history did they become a minority? Were Muslims of North India a minority under Mughal rule two hundred years ago? Were the Muslims of Hyderabad a minority when the Nizam was in power sixty years ago? The answer is, no. In other words, a minority status is not a function of numbers; it is a function of empowerment. The Brahmin has a miniscule population and lives across all economic layers, but no Brahmin sees himself as a minority, because he is socially and politically empowered. Democracy is the greatest blessing the dispossessed can have, for it is the only system that finds space for progressive empowerment.

But if the percentage game is going to be played into overtime, as is being done by this government, in educational institutions and jobs, the two most significant tools of empowerment, then a democratically elected government of India has no right to exclude minorities from this game. Arjun Singh has always positioned himself as a champion of minorities. Where are they when he has made his most significant political play?

If we are to get social change peacefully, then there is a legitimate place for positive discrimination. No one in his senses, for instance, can argue against positive discrimination for Scheduled Castes and Tribes: they carry a burden of neglect and enslavement that India should be ashamed of.

But a good idea has been perverted by excess. If half the students of a quality institution are there because of quotas rather than intellectual ability then they will affect the quality of the institution. Instead of the institution raising the standards of the students, students will lower the standards of the institution. The young are not unreasonable; the old do not have a monopoly on wisdom. Students have accepted existing levels of quotas because they too can see its limited need. But students will not allow politics to drag their schools into a swamp. Politicians can think no further than the next elections. The young have their whole lives to consider.

Caste is a fact, but is it a virtue? Government policy should seek to eliminate differences rather than consolidate them. And is caste the only statistic that the mighty government has? Is there no other definition of poverty?

I could argue that market forces have done more to change a repellent reality like untouchability than all government diktats put together. Urbanisation, driven by either choice or need, has not eliminated casteism, but it has dulled its cruelties. Does anyone know who is touching whom on a crowded Mumbai bus? Does anyone care? Can anyone afford to care?

A theory is floating through Delhi, and will doubtless find its way into national conversation, that Arjun Singh did not inform Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before this cynical midterm twist of the knife. This is partly because of the Prime Minister’s credibility with the middle class; it does not want to believe that its hero would sully his clean hands with conventional Congress vote-bank politics. A more cynical view is that the Prime Minister has denied foreknowledge of so many critical decisions that have been made by his government that one more can easily be added to the list. By being too non-political the Prime Minister might have sparred himself into a corner. He could end up as Prime Minister of only a happy Stock Exchange and a forlorn Indo-US nuclear deal. In the beginning, the middle and the end, a Prime Minister’s function is political. Dr Manmohan Singh may want to escape from politics. But politics will catch up with him.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Walking through raindrops

Byline by MJ Akbar: Walking through raindrops

There is a curious, perhaps inadvertent but certainly revealing, flaw in the Congress formulation of Mrs Sonia Gandhi as the Leader Under Siege. It is possible that the paradox escaped her think tank, since it is so very easy to miss the obvious. But her strategists made a mistake when they constructed a line that does not stand up to scrutiny: namely, that just as "everyone" had ganged up against Mrs Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, "everyone" was also ganging up against Sonia Gandhi.

All the heavy hitters during the struggle phase of Indira Gandhi — Morarji Desai, Kamaraj Nadar, S.K. Patil, D.P. Mishra, Ram Subhag Singh — are dead. But those who drove Rajiv Gandhi from power are still amidst us. Not all of them are in the best of health, but all of them are part of the national discourse.

If I had to prioritise the foes of Rajiv Gandhi, I would place them in this order (the ratings are based not on their place in politics, but on their effectiveness in media and opinion-creation). At the very top would be the name of Ram Jethmalani. It was his series of questions on Bofors, heavily promoted in Ramnath Goenka’s Indian Express, which established the tone of the acrimony. Second would be Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who was effectively if artificially built up as the symbol of anti-Bofors probity and went on to reap such extensive rewards, far greater than what landed in Jethmalani’s lap. Third would come the BJP, led then as now by Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, who of course were delighted to see the secularists get together to shred the Congress. Fourth, on par with the BJP in volume and invective, were the Communists, led then as now by Jyoti Basu and Somnath Chatterjee. Fifth, higher in both volume and invective than the previous two, were the Socialists led by George Fernandes and Madhu Limaye at the senior level and Lalu Prasad Yadav on the second rung. It might be noted that on ground zero Lalu was more effective than Fernandes or Limaye.

Where are they today?

Ram Jethmalani is publicly and forcefully on the side of Mrs Sonia Gandhi, as readers of the Op-Ed pages of this newspaper will confirm. V.P. Singh may be more muted, but he too is firmly on the side of Sonia, having nothing to say anymore about Bofors. (He once announced, during a public rally at Gandhi Maidan in Patna, that he had the full list of account numbers where the Bofors commissions were stored and would shortly disclose them.) Jyoti Basu and Somnath Chatterjee are active allies of Sonia Gandhi and come readily to her defence if she is under attack. It would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago that they could be part of an alliance with the Congress. The Socialists, being socialists and therefore less than sociable, are split. But one of the most important leaders of the movement inspired by Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, Lalu Yadav, is with Sonia Gandhi. Looking across the political spectrum, if you see Sharad Pawar as a variation of the Congress(O) that opposed Indira Gandhi, then he too is within the alliance led by Sonia Gandhi. The "everyone" therefore is an exaggeration. Only the BJP and a section of the Lohiaites remain against Sonia Gandhi.

The reason for the strategists’ mistake is easy to discern. Subconsciously the Congress is still reluctant to accept that it is firmly committed to alliance politics, and struggles to return to its natural m├ętier, as the dominant national party: "us versus all of them" creeps naturally into its dialectic.

It is equally natural that it should believe that Sonia Gandhi could restore the party to its Indira Gandhi-era status. If she can resurrect it once, she can be trusted to rebuild it further.

Desire, though, has to be married to opportunity for such political consummation. Opportunity, however, is not constantly available for wedlock. It can arrive without warning. Desire has to be ready for opportunity. Opportunity can be more flippant; it does not have to be as constant as desire. Opportunity can take its time, choose its moment, and arrive at the door through the most circuitous route. You cannot flirt with opportunity or keep it waiting at the door for too long. You must seize it.

Has opportunity arrived once again at the Congress door? The BJP provided one two years by first advancing the date of the general election and then announcing a landslide victory before the people ensured a slide in the reverse direction. Has a series of events beginning with the successful effort to unseat Jaya Bachchan from the Rajya Sabha created the conditions for Sonia Gandhi to seek the endorsement of the electorate at a national level? There are early signs of this possibility. The Congress has launched a campaign across the country with a simple theme: that Sonia Gandhi has an unparalleled sense of sacrifice and such a virtue is precisely the kind of nobility that the Indian voter wants to see in his, and of course her, leader. The memory of Indira Gandhi, the iron woman who had a soft heart for the poor, is easily evoked. So much effort can hardly be for a mere byelection in Rae Bareli, which Sonia Gandhi does not have to visit to win.

Opposition parties who think that they should put up a candidate against her in Rae Bareli will be wasting their money and time if they take their candidate seriously. It seems probable that psephologists are testing this proposition with market research and will have their suggestions ready by the end of April. Add a few percentage points for the fact that the anti-Congress Opposition is in about as unholy a mess as can be, and clueless to boot. If a trip on a chariot is all that is on offer, then the Congress has some right to optimism.

One might add in parenthesis that the results of the coming round of Assembly elections (in which the Congress will lose, probably everywhere) will have as little impact on the outcome of a general election towards the end of the year as the BJP’s victories in the northern states had on the overall results two years ago. The goalposts shift, changing the game.

The dilemma before the Congress is not the vote-pulling power of its foes but the vote banks of its friends. The Congress is in power because of an alliance. Can it return to power without an alliance, or with a reduced number of allies? It will seek the second option. It would be foolhardy to plunge into the first. But an alliance is a house of cards, and has to be carefully protected from any passing breeze. Will the structure hold if you remove a few cards from the north or the west? It did not when the BJP muscled into friendly space in Jharkhand and Haryana and Assam.

The BJP may or may not have learnt from this mistake; will the Congress learn from the BJP’s mistakes? The irony is unmistakable. Both the Congress and the BJP have the same strategic interest, to become dominant national parties. Their basic frustration is not each other, but the regional parties that they have to carry in the tactical search for immediate office.

The Congress believes that it has a story to tell the people, of Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s sacrifice. But does it have a story to tell its allies? The smaller parties in the ruling alliance can see no obvious merit in another general election, since the best result they can hope for is the status quo.

The Congress is walking through raindrops. As an exercise this has superb merits, not the least of them being that it keeps the party on its toes. If it can tiptoe its way through the drops, avoid that slip that turns into a splash, there could appear a rainbow on the horizon. It will be probably have to dump the Rainbow Coalition of 2004 to find the rainbow of 2007, but that is the fate of rainbows. They disappear as quickly as they come.

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