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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