CHECK THE IMPOSSIBLE TO FIND THE POSSIBLE
By M J Akbar
COVERT (16-31st JULY 2008)
In times of meltdown, the great eagerness is of course to get a glimpse of the future. The tendency, but naturally, is to track the future along the seam lines of what politicians can do. There is a much surer way of negotiating such minefields. Check out what politicians cannot do, and you will get a far better idea of what they will do.
Eliminate the impossible, and the possible begins to define itself. This is not to suggest that the contours of the possible will always be precise. Fuzz comes much more naturally to politics than clarity. But at least the route map will be broadly correct.
Second tip: Sentiment has little to do with power play. Likes and dislikes mean very little at crunch time. Politics is about the protection and pursuit of interests. Of course self-serving politicians will always clothe their self-interests in the garb of national interest, but that subterfuge is so old that it has worn thin.
It was never possible for the Left to accept a strategic alliance with the United States, which is the meat and bones of the new relationship that Dr Manmohan Singh and George Bush want. It is a concept in which India becomes the eastern fortress of the “New Middle East”, an expanded arc that stretches from the Nile to the Ganges and includes all the volatile regions of the Muslim world in which America has a deep vested interest because of energy. America does not hide this interest. George Bush is blatant in his assertion that American troops will remain in Iraq for the foreseeable and unforeseeable future, occupying 58 bases. The pro-American Iraqi government in Baghdad wants all American troops out within a specified timeframe, but that does not faze American policymakers. India, including its waters, will become a region from which American forces can operate if they feel the need to do so. Obviously, this need will arise only rarely, but when it does India will be an undeclared base supporting forward operations. War is not only about fighting; it is also about logistics. The sop that is being thrown out by Dr Singh is that an American presence will be protection for India against Chinese aggression. He, along with the Congress, has abandoned the notion that India can defend itself without becoming an American ally.
The Left has not. Who is right is less relevant, in the present context, than the fact that these views are incompatible. The alliance, acceptable till the line was breached, is now untenable. Dr Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi want to leave an indelible American mark on the Congress Party, with consequences that will change the organisation’s fundamental ethos completely. That is their privilege. A substantial section of the Congress does not agree, but is voiceless in a party where debate has been extinguished. However, it is absurd for the Prime Minister and Mrs Gandhi to expect the Left to rubberstamp their somersault. Congress spin-veterinarians (they are not quite doctors) tried till the last minute to suggest that the Left would beg for some patchwork formula rather than face “isolation”, but they were only fooling themselves.
Mulayam Singh’s decision to ditch the Third Front and support the Congress government has absolutely nothing to do with America or the nuclear deal. His compulsions are regional and personal. Mayawati has driven him out of power in the only state where he can be in power. Defeat in the last Assembly elections to Mayawati has unnerved him. He is no longer confident that he can take on Mayawati alone. The Congress makes a perfect ally, because it is too frail to make an independent bid for power: it is bed-ridden but not quite dead. If the Congress had been able to even walk, it would have sought to triangulate the non-BJP vote and expand its space in order to build its future. But it has abandoned its future in the heartland in order to seal a deal with America.
When it comes to a division of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 seats before the next general election, Mulayam Singh will bargain with bare knuckles. Those Congressmen who think the party can contest 25 seats are living in a very big fool’s paradise. They will be lucky if Mulayam offers ten and relents to 12. Local luminaries like Salman Khursheed could discover that they have been sliced out since Mulayam will not concede a constituency like Farrukhabad. Once the Congress moves out of 80% of the seats, it will never be able to return, for its remaining cadre will abandon the party. This suits Mulayam Singh even better, just as it suits Lalu Yadav in Bihar to restrict Congress to four or five seats. The Congress cannot revive if it sells long to buy short.
The short-term benefits for the Congress are dubious; the long term suggests disaster. If there is an electoral deal with Mulayam, the Congress will have effectively eliminated itself from the spine of the nation, the Indo-Gangetic belt from the point where the Ganga enters the plains to Ganga Sagar in Bengal, where it pours into the Bay of Bengal. If, five years or more later, the electorate tires of regional parties and seeks a national alternative, the Congress will have evaporated from the space where it could have reaped maximum benefits. The only national party in Uttar Pradesh left standing will be the BJP.
On paper, the nuclear-dealers should survive in the floor test in the Lok Sabha. Mulayam Singh has already made it clear that support will come at a price determined by how much benefit he and his friends can get. Those opposing the deal have nothing to offer by way of cash or policy-switch; and there are no trips to America to encourage them. The process cannot but further erode the credibility of the ruling coalition. The price will be high; the size of the parliamentary victory as low as single digits. Dr Manmohan Singh began with a majority of over a hundred. In four years, by becoming a one-point Bush-entranced Prime Minister, he has reduced that majority to a variable that could easily slip into a minority. Hard numbers may be less important than the more malleable commodity known as credibility. A shrinking government, tossed around by a last -minute Mulayam Rescue Squad, discovers that its authority has dissipated as well.
India is in a mess, its flesh weakened by inflation, its bones wracked by Naxalite violence. But the Prime Minister had a glow on his face when he met George Bush at the G8 Summit in Japan. Bush has been an uncertain asset over the last three years; he will be a liability in elections. But of course the two can still smile at each other when both their parties have lost national elections because of their leadership.