Sunday, October 07, 2007

Soft Hands

Byline by M J Akbar: Soft Hands

We think of political parties as either "big" or "small". The "big" are the Big Two, Congress and the BJP, because they spread across about half the country. The "small" are the rest, the regional powers.

Politics prefers soft hands. Why have Indian politicians suddenly started playing with knuckledusters? Democracy functions best when handled gently. Even an unrepentant villain knows that it makes sense to smile and smile even when he wants to be his natural self. That is the law of democratic behaviour. It is a gentle game, even if not a gentleman’s game.

All coalition politics begin with a promise. They survive when you add a "com" to the "promise". Compromise is the natural flow of give and take, an art that is familiar to Indian politics. In the last few weeks there has been an upsurge of a new mood: a desire to stick to a one-way street, to get away with what you can take.

Karnataka is a reflection of a larger phenomenon. The veteran of wile, H.D. Deve Gowda, has walked away from a commitment to hand over the chief ministership of the state to the BJP. Of course he hopes to walk all the way to an electoral vote bank, since his decision is an invitation to a fresh election, but his crutch is a lame excuse. How far can a lame excuse take him? The BJP has hardly been lily-white, provoking its partner at every opportunity. But it stuck to the letter of the agreement.

The hard lines in Tamil Nadu are, paradoxically, more fluid, but the alliance has gone askew there as well thanks to a gratuitous provocation. Chief minister Karunanidhi might believe that he can get away with an insult to Lord Ram in his own state, but there has been serious collateral damage to his principal ally, the Congress, whose fortunes are determined outside Tamil Nadu. The controversy keeps rising a notch a week, when it could easily have been calmed down by a suitable phrase of regret. Even when a sort of apology was offered, it was hemmed in by less than apologetic nuances. Curiously, the Congress seems either unconcerned or completely unable to do anything about the spreading simmer. Karunanidhi has been around long enough to know that a boomerang has struck the Congress even if it has possibly missed him. Does he care? Not by the evidence.

Never were soft hands needed more urgently than to save the coalition at the top of the bunch, headed by Dr Manmohan Singh. A Prime Minister who is in office thanks to support from the Left might have been expected to purchase velvet gloves for very very soft hands in order to massage the plethora of thorns in the nuclear deal he has fashioned with his now good friend, George Bush. Instead Dr Singh, who had the reputation of being the gentlest of men, has been swinging out with a passion that few expected. The worst of his anger has not been directed at the Opposition, but at the Left. In a series of comments he has literally dared the Left to do its worst, and now seems a little surprised when the Left has gone ahead and done its worst. A rigid certainty that he is right, and the only one who is right, does not help coalition sensitivities. There are many senior voices in the Congress who believe (naturally, only privately) that Dr Singh has hijacked the party with his inexplicable obstinacy. But any suggestion of even a mild compromise, like a little more time, provokes the muted threat from the Prime Minister that he will resign if talks with the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group do not proceed according to the calendar set by George Bush. If there are any medals for political fidelity, the Victoria Cross for heroism in the face of common sense should go to Dr Manmohan Singh.

Is there a common strand in the sudden rise in the divorce rate in Indian politics? One explanation is obvious. The urge for power today has been replaced by the thirst for power tomorrow. The present coalition arrangements have clearly passed their sell-by date. Everyone has moved into election mode. The controlling force of events is not what will keep an existing government in power, but what will — hopefully, always only hopefully in a vibrant democracy such as ours — bring a party back to power.

But why should the prospect of a general election encourage fragmentation? Surely political parties need all the allies they can manage to cobble together before they ask the voters to choose?

Not quite.

We think of political parties as either "big" or "small". The "big" are the Big Two, Congress and the BJP, because they spread across about half the country. The "small" are the rest, the regional powers.

But this is not quite the way that the political players see themselves. Reverse the lens, and the second perspective might have more merit. The CPI(M) may be "small" vis-à-vis the country, but it is not merely big but dominant in Bengal. A Mulayam Singh Yadav, a Mayawati, a Chandrababu Naidu, a Naveen Patnaik may be dismissed as "small" in Delhi, but in their own playgrounds it is the Congress and the BJP who are small if not minuscule. In some states, the definitions are still in flux. That is why politics gets even more murky. The next election in Karnataka, for instance, will decide who is "big" and "small" between three claimants.

A progression process has now transformed into an elimination game in at least two states, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Maharashtra has two alliances, and four claimants. Intra-alliance tensions can become as volatile as inter-party antagonisms. The Shiv Sena and the BJP may have patched up for the moment, but their tensions will not disappear. The Congress and Sharad Pawar’s NCP can barely maintain a civil attitude towards each other. Everyone knows that the next election might change a rectangular balance of power into a triangular one. In other states, new forces are shifting traditional vote blocs. The biggest player in the coming churn will be Mayawati, who will foment a surprise or two in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.

Partly as a consequence of competing ambitions, and partly because too many differences hinge on personality rather than ideology, there is recognition (albeit unmentioned) that the next coalition to rule India will be created after the results of the next general election are known, and will not emerge from a pre-election alliance. Only specific results can sift out ego and flatulence from fact. And so those political parties who can, or who feel confident enough, are ready to go their own way. They may return to present alliances, or they may go with a better offer. The players will sit at a tough negotiating table, confident that the one thing the game will not allow is a bluff. All cards will be on the table.

The cards will be hard, but that game will be played with soft hands. This is a democracy, after all.

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