The government’s retreat on the Indo-US nuclear deal, after three years of do-or-die bravado, can only be explained by that old adage: He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day. Martyrs get memorials and medals, but they don’t get a second chance. Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi, sensibly, have opted for a second chance in preference to a charge of the light brigade towards immediate elections.
"A Prime Minister must ride high. You cannot rule India by riding low."
"Is there a difference between calculation and speculation? Not much perhaps, when it comes to Indian politics. But watch out for the omens."
It is all a bit embarrassing of course. No general likes to march his troops to the top of the hill, heroic breastplates glinting in the sun, only to march them down again. Even if you do not lose a battle, you do lose face. But embarrassment is a small price to pay for survival in office. What the Prime Minister does need to worry about is loss of credibility. For three years he has told the country that the nuclear deal is central to India’s well-being and prosperity for the next five decades. At various points, opponents of the deal have been derided as unpatriotic and even enemies of peace. You cannot suddenly sit down to supper with pseudo-traitors and enemies with the thin explanation that life must go on. The Prime Minister raised the stakes. He invested more time and energy into this one policy than the rest of his decisions put together. This was the central fact of his administration. To walk away from such pinnacles of history with nary a whimper can only whittle the authority of a man leading a government.
A Prime Minister must ride high. You cannot rule India by riding low.
The only politician riding high now is Prakash Karat, and that is because he rode steadily through intense turbulence. That is always the litmus test in leadership, the ability to be steadfast in a crisis. He was steady because Marxists have a stabiliser called ideology. It would be incorrect to minimise the storms he was facing. If there was a typhoon charging at him in Delhi, there was a tornado behind his back, in Bengal.
The Prime Minister always maintained that he was motivated by principle, but when it came to the crux he succumbed to the politician’s irresistible lure for office. The Congress decision turned on something as insubstantial as opinion polls. You can see the relationship between public posture and psephologists. When some rather breathless television polls (where are they now?) predicted that the Congress would win 200 seats thanks to the nuclear deal, the Prime Minister picked up his lance and charged at the Left’s windmills, daring Marxists to do their worst. This was not a private dare; this was a public challenge. When the poll numbers began to drop, the triumphalism started to waver. The latest internal polling numbers must have been truly desultory to force such a retreat.
The paradox is that while it remains to be seen how helpful this will be to the Congress, the Congress has done the Left a huge favour. The Marxists are in a poor shape in Bengal (which makes Prakash Karat’s ideological clarity all the more praiseworthy). Ration riots — not seen since 1967 — have erupted in Marxist strongholds, and bode ill for the Left in an election. A Left bulwark in Bengal has been the substantial Muslim vote: Muslims account for 27% of the population and over 30% of the vote since they tend to vote in larger numbers. This support has weakened in rural areas because of Nandigram, and in Kolkata because of the case of a young man called Rizwan ur Rehman. He died recently in unexplained circumstances after falling in love and marrying a Marwari Hindu girl. By all accounts, it was a happy marriage, and the girl was content with a middle class home despite the fact that her father, Ashok Todi is supposed to be worth over Rs 200 crores. It is known that this money came from the less than respectable trade of illegal betting; you do not succeed as a bookie without a mutually beneficial relationship with the police. Rizwan’s family alleges that the police murdered him on Todi’s instance; the police claim it was suicide; the truth is in the hands of an enquiry, if the enquiry can find the truth.
Kolkata, true to its reputation as a bastion of spirited secularism, has treated this as a human rights issue, rather than a communal problem. Kolkatans have lots of reasons for pride in their city; this one is at the top.
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is honest and sincere but he is no Jyoti Basu. Jyoti Basu was unique. He combined the patrician’s impartiality with a common touch. He could, through instinct and experience, read the common pulse and soothe the popular nerve at moments of crisis. Buddhadeb seems constantly torn between his administration’s self-centred advice and a public position that tends to suffer from poor counsel.
This is why Rizwan’s mother says that she would meet Jyoti Basu any time, but will not meet the chief minister. Buddhadeb was mature enough to visit the family despite the comment, which is an indication of how CPI(M) can turn things around.
In plain words, Bengal is in a bit of a mess. The one thing that the CPI(M) needs desperately is time to clean up the mess. It has the capacity to do so, with the help of Jyoti Basu, but it could never have managed this in the hothouse of an immediate election campaign. It needs a minimum of three months if not more. The Congress retreat has given it invaluable time.
The big mystery is: why did the Congress blink before it needed to? It could have waited till the CPI(M)’s politburo meeting on 18 October, or the next UPA-Left meeting on 22 October. A week is a long time in politics, and who knows who would have succumbed under internal pressure. The Bengal CPI(M)’s dilemma must be obvious. Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s speech in Haryana was written to raise the pitch in preparation for an election. Why then the volte face?
Perhaps we need to return to our starting point: have Dr Singh and Mrs Gandhi survived to fight another day over the nuclear deal? If so, when is the "another day" scheduled?
The Bush administration has not changed its calendar. It still wants the necessary clearances from the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group so that the agreement can be sent back to Congress by March. It believes that it has enough leverage with both to complete the process in eight or ten weeks. Support in the Congress thereafter will be bipartisan. So, even if the deal were activated in December, it could still catch the March deadline. In other words, if you are a betting man, take your chances on a nuclear winter in India. That would of course mean an April election, but hasn’t the Prime Minister said, if winter comes can spring be far behind?
An April election would also be within the comfort zone of the Left.
Is there a difference between calculation and speculation? Not much perhaps, when it comes to Indian politics. But watch out for the omens. We already have one: the decision not to raise oil prices. Who wants higher prices in an election year? One can already see the whole Cabinet suddenly getting teary-eyed about the welfare of the poor, who have, for three years, been fed the old routine of minimal sops and maximum promises. That is another omen. If there is a sudden flurry of attention towards what are considered "Muslim" issues, that will be a third. Nothing sets off a frenzy of do-goodism quicker than the prospect of a general election. But you have to time these things accurately. This cannot be done too early, or time will expose them as hollow.
To govern you need balance, flair and credibility. The Prime Minister does much more than an administrative job. The momentum of power is not static. If you do not propel it forward, it pushes you back. You have to ride high. The only horse that moves on static is a hobby horse. Has the nuclear deal become one? The Prime Minister cannot accept yes as an answer to that tricky question.