Sunday, January 13, 2008

Knockout Time

Byline by M J Akbar: Knockout Time

The logic of the last round can be significantly different from the strategies that have sustained a heavyweight bout thus far. When the contestants hear the final bell, they can be sure of two things in a democracy tournament: there will be a winner or a loser, because there is nothing called an inconclusive draw. Two, time is finite. This is a moment for decisions; the options of weave-and-duck are over. You need to conserve your maximum strength for the knockout punch in this winner-takes-all struggle.

Gujarat seems to have opened both the pores and the eyes of the Congress. From the pores has oozed some panic-perspiration. It remains to be seen whether open eyes will bring clarity. Mrs Sonia Gandhi has authorised some mobilisation of fresh recruitment to the ranks, and the person at the top of the wooing-list is Mulayam Singh Yadav, after three years during which Yadav was the target of some fairly ferocious pummelling. This is ironic, of course, since Yadav was humiliated, and then kept out of government, after he offered and gave full support to the coalition now in office in Delhi. A little more civility three and a half years ago, and the deal might have been in place all the while. Of course, if politics brings such bedfellows together, the Congress will suddenly convert Amar Singh from brash-lip to gentleman, and issue a character certificate to Amitabh Bachchan that he made no efforts to evade income tax and all along had been a bosom family friend. This is politics, or at least personality politics, a bane of Indian democracy.

The glue for a potential alliance is a common enemy, the forthright Ms Mayawati. The Congress should have realised many years ago that Mayawati and the Congress are incompatible because their vote-structure overlaps. If Mayawati succeeds, the Congress is sunk. She damaged the Congress in a dozen constituencies in Himachal Pradesh, and perhaps as many in Gujarat.
What can prevent a Congress-Mulayam alliance now? The same thing that sabotaged it to begin with: personal angst. Samajwadi Party leaders now have long lists of grievances, and unless they are remedied the acrimony will not suddenly disappear. The Congress will need more than one remedy in the North in the general elections that seem destined for this year.

The Left is still in a daze in Bengal, stunned by the virulent public anger over Nandigram and Singur. This is not an urban phenomenon, but has spread to the villages. The coming panchayat elections this summer will be as tough as any that the CPI(M) has fought. Moreover, the Muslims, who have been the strongest supporters of the Left, are slipping from its grasp. Justice Rajinder Sachar’s report has exposed the neglect of the community in Bengal; he is identified now not only with discrimination but also with justice. There is a double trap here. Even as the BJP plans to call Sachar report appeasement, Muslims are distancing themselves from their preferred parties out of disillusionment. The vacuum is being filled by the religious leaders, who have now created political platforms. The Left, averse to identity politics because of its conviction that class was the principal determinant, has become marooned.

To its credit, it has got the message and is addressing the problem, not just by windbag rhetoric, the traditional medication offered by politicians, but with a series of grass-roots’ programmes that have been sanctioned, and aim at basics like education and employment (including in the government sector). This may be insufficient to salve wounds before a general election, but it will be recognised before the next Assembly elections. The problem of Taslima Nasreen’s controversial book, and her immense desire to live among friends in Kolkata, has the potential to resurrect passions at any moment. If this book goes on sale at the Kolkata book fair in the last week of January this year, there could be trouble. The venue is the Park Circus Maidan, close to the Muslim localities of the city.

Can the Left do anything to recover before the Lok Sabha elections? It has one hidden asset, a bit of a negative one, but substantial nevertheless. We know what the Left Front is all about: the cumbrous economic transition process which has turned into a lurch rather than a trot; a stagnant administrative delivery mechanism that aborts the best of intentions; the weariness of incumbency. We know the size of each wart, and it is not a pretty sight.

But what precisely is the alternative, Mamata Banerjee, all about? We know she wants to be chief minister and throw the Tata car project into the Bay of Bengal. But how does she plan to provide jobs to Bengal’s young? We know she is censorious about the Marxist neglect of Muslims, but how precisely is she planning to deliver salvation? We have a lot of silence instead of coherent answers. The Left can exploit contradictions inherent in the personality-and-martyrdom politics of Mamata Banerjee if it has the skill and the will to do so. There was a time when ‘if’ would have been redundant. These days a qualification is necessary.

What can Dr Manmohan Singh do in the last months of his prime ministership? For starters, there is something he should not do. He must avoid the temptation to turn the last budget of his administration, due in February, into a charity jumble sale. Throwing money at vote banks simply does not work. It infuriates those who have been denied, and bores the beneficiaries, who wanted such inducements in the first budget, when there was time for implementation, and not in the last, when there is time only to ask for votes.

Everyone knows Dr Singh is a mild Prime Minister. That is admirable. Very few men are capable of modesty in high office. Power generally travels at lightning speed to their head, propelling them upwards like a gas balloon without a tail. Dr Singh remains simple and honest — even as all around him ego-wrecked ministers stack it up in sackfuls.
But the question Dr Singh must answer is this: has he been a weak Prime Minister? He has only one way left to kill such an allegation, and he has perhaps up to February and possibly March to do so.

The central thrust of his years in office has been the Indo-US nuclear deal, now wandering in the limbo of uncertainty and headed towards the purgatory of lost souls if left without a tether. The Americans are irritated at what they see as betrayal, or at least bad judgment. Indian supporters of the deal are aghast. If Dr Singh lets down the passion that he himself generated, he will not be given time for penitence.

As readers of this column are aware, I have opposed the deal because of many of the provisions of the Hyde Act, which I consider intrusive, abrasive and even impudent. (Why should Iran be mentioned 18 times in a bilateral deal between the United States and India?) But the Prime Minister believes very deeply that India can live with such conditions, and the trade-off is worth the benefits that will accrue to the country. He has always argued that the deal is in the national interest, in which case it is axiomatic that the national interest should prevail over the government’s interest, which is really nothing more than surviving a few extra months. It is not as if Dr Singh was being asked to sacrifice three years of his term. If Dr Singh stakes his government even now on the deal, you might be able to call him mistaken, but you will not be able to call him weak.

Without strength, he and the Congress might as well not even begin sparring for the last round — otherwise, instead of a knockout, we will witness a knockabout.

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