Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Certain Uncertainty

Byline by M J Akbar: A Certain Uncertainty

Two significant news items were circulated within twenty-four hours of each other by the Press Trust of India, an agency that believes, correctly, that the information it distributes should be independent of its consequences. It concentrates on what, not why or wherefore. It is left to us, hence, to wonder if there are any dots that connect.

The first item reported that the next session of the All India Congress Committee would be held in Delhi on 17 November. An AICC plenary can be fun. It is a wonderful party mela that attracts a spectrum of shapes, shades and shrieks, a collection of the washed and unwashed, starched and silken, lords, middlemen and peasants that reflect the national character of a party which has lost a national vote but retains a national aspiration. The speeches are predictable paeans of loyalty, but that is only to be expected. Once upon a time these used to be annual affairs, with resolutions discussed in the subjects committee before being moved at the full session, and new presidents elected with their own working committees. But those days are long over. The late P.V. Narasimha Rao attempted to revive inner party elections to the working committee (but not to his own job) at the Tirupati AICC but abandoned the exercise after checking the results. That was the end of that. Even the subjects committee is being abandoned now because very few can understand why it exists.

The last AICC plenary was in January 2006 at Hyderabad. It was a double-whammy celebration: for a well-deserved triumph in Andhra Pradesh, and a more crafted victory at the national level. Ritual homage was paid to the future in the praise for Rahul Gandhi and everyone went home to enjoy the fruits of office.

The coming AICC session in November is not a plenary, but a limited gathering of AICC members. It has been called at short notice. It has not been summoned to celebrate anything, because after three years in office no ruling party has more reason for worry than celebration. It is not being called to reassert its confidence in the leadership, because there is no question of any challenge to the president of the party, Mrs Sonia Gandhi. But it cannot be an exercise in nothing. So what is the purpose?

Is there a link to the second PTI story, which said that the American administration wants the Indo-US nuclear deal to be presented to the Congress by January next year? The specific PTI sentence is: "Harping on a year-end deadline for the nuclear deal with India, the US has said it will be good to get it voted in the Congress by the coming January."

The next meeting between the government and the Left on the nuclear deal is scheduled for 14 November. If the January deadline is to be met, this will also be the last meeting on the subject, for the deal must then pass through the IAEA in Vienna and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The AICC session therefore is perfectly placed for three resolutions: congratulating the president of the party and the Prime Minister for negotiating and implementing the nuclear deal; offering it as a panacea for prosperity; and welcoming Rahul Gandhi, with his young followers, into the top echelons of the party.

The Congress will fight the next elections on the twin slogans of the nuclear deal and youth. The November AICC is clearly designed to set the stage for trumpets. Generals sound the bugle only on the eve of battle. Logic suggests, therefore, that the Congress has made up its mind and will settle for a spring election, in either February or April. Expect a few "pro-poor" announcements soon.

All the factors that must be taken into consideration also suggest this. If the nuclear deal slips out of control, and ends up in political never-never-land, the Congress will have nothing to show for its three years in power. It is banking on the youth of the urban middle class, which is a natural ally of America and disdainful of the Left, to provide the necessary impetus to its election prospects.

Moreover, the politics of the impending Assembly elections in Gujarat has revived the Modi-riots issue. Crime and punishment have a tenuous relationship when it comes to communal riots against minorities. The fact that those who killed in Gujarat had the support of Narendra Modi, or are still free, will astonish only those who wear tinted eyewear. Modi, unsurprisingly, believes that electoral success places him above the law, and he can get away with shooting the messenger. There is no penance in his soul, or even mild regret.

Unwashed bloodstains form a macabre backdrop to our social history. The gruesome Bhagalpur riots, when Yadavs massacred Muslims, took place in 1989. A token few were convicted for their role in it only this year; the rest are nearly twenty years older, and possibly parading as respectable pillars of the community. But the conviction of the few must be considered an achievement. Many of those who were directly involved in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 are in high office; most are comfortably forgotten in the anonymity of Delhi. The killers of Mumbai’s Muslims in 1992 and 1993, a process that lasted for intermittent days spread across weeks, could have been stopped by the Congress government then in power, but were permitted to indulge in mayhem. A commission of enquiry has named dozens of the guilty, including policemen who became part of the murdering mobs, but for fifteen years successive state governments, including Congress governments in the last eight years, have protected rather than prosecuted the killers.

Each general election becomes a purgative for a multitude of sins. The sins are placed before a jury of voters that measures them on the scales of self-interest. It is natural for the scales to keep swinging in a volatile democracy. Political parties, if they have it in their power, choose the moment when they believe the tilt is in their favour to go to the polls. The Congress seems to have convinced itself that 2008 is a better year than 2009 for elections.

All facts are not equal in an election. There are facts, and then there are decisive facts. The great charm of democracy is that the voter never quite lets on which is the fact that is going to be decisive as he steps into the booth. Politicians who are confident about victory pay the bitter price of regret. This much can be said about the winter of 2007: there is a pall of uncertainty over every political face. This may be bad news for politicians but is extremely good news for politics. The equations that produced a government in 2004 have fractured, but alternatives are tentative. The Third Front, equidistant from both the Congress and the BJP, began with a flourish, and then nearly collapsed on itself before showing signs of revival. There is no alliance yet which can promise a post-election government on its own.

The consolidation necessary for government-formation will probably take place around the numbers thrown up by results, rather than pre-election issues. The present government was formed after the results, not before them; you can expect that again, with the difference that the binding Common Minimum Programme will be even more minimalist in order to achieve a degree of commonality.

The size of the field is the same; the number of players has multiplied. The next general election will be the last to offer a flux. After that voters will veer towards one principal party. Which one? That depends on who does what over the next three years.

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