Byline by M J Akbar: Headmaster of A School for Scandal
In the end it's the jokes that get you, isn't it? SMS, that deadly virus, has been spreading sound bites like "Sting is King". Its first cousin, email, has been circulating emotional pleas to the heartless Finance Minister: "Don't you know how old MPs are? They have bad backs! Can't you print Rs 100,000 notes instead of measly little thousand-rupee notes??? Do you know how heavy a sack of 30 crores is?" There are heart-rending stories of MPs breaking down because they did not know how to take their loot, collected in Delhi, back to the security of their small towns.
One email was untouched by levity and weighed by hurt and anger. Dr Manmohan Singh had repeated Guru Gobind Singh's famous battle hymn, in which he asked the Lord to ensure that "shubh karman mein kabhu na darun [may I never be afraid to do right]" before the debate began. How could the Prime Minister have recited this just before he launched into unprecedented "dushkarman [misdeeds]"?
The Prime Minister won his battle in July. He may have lost the war that is only a few months away. He won the confidence of the House only to lose the trust of the nation.
Dr Manmohan Singh's reputation for personal honesty was the last remaining undiluted asset of the Congress after four years of government. The voter did not ever believe his ministers to be clean. Some of them have established fresh records in corruption. But he was certain that the Prime Minister was an honest man. After the cash-for-votes-and-hide-the-tape scandal, Manmohan Singh is just another sullied politician, willing to feast on Grub Street in the company of the most famous bagmen, and travel the Gravy Train chatting with fixers and pushers in order to remain in office.
As the cash disbursers have proved, the Congress is full of calculators. It needed a mathematician. A strategist would have analysed the cost-benefit ratio and sabotaged the cash-and-carry operation on grounds of common sense. What has been won is nothing compared to what will be lost.
There is enough evidence that the voter punishes corruption and rewards probity. Leaders like Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Naveen Patnaik, Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi have won support because they are believed to be personally honest. It may not be the only reason for re-election, but it is a primary reason. The Congress had that advantage in the image of Dr Singh. That reputation has self-destructed.
Inflation had already weakened the voter's confidence in Dr Singh's abilities as an economist. His second asset was wiped off the books in July.
The Prime Minister cannot hold his nose above the stink anymore. He was personally involved in the purchase of MPs. He was visibly uncertain at his own dinner on the eve of the debate, despite the fact that Shibu Soren had already been bought in what should be called the real "1-2-3 Agreement": the cash-stoked coal portfolio for Soren, deputy chief ministership of Jharkhand for his son, and a second ministerial berth for a party MP in Delhi. By Monday morning, the Prime Minister was smiling, and waving the V sign as he entered Parliament. Late at night he received word from his money-managers that enough MPs had switched, or been neutralised, to ensure a comfortable victory. Parliament had become a sleaze house, but so what? The mask of morality used to fool us for four years now lies in that great receptacle called the dustbin of history.
There is a problem when you tread on sleaze. You can slip on it, hurting yourself badly, even as your fall becomes the source of cynical laughter.
The Prime Minister's face turned visibly ashen when three BJP MPs threw bundles of currency notes into the well of the House. For the nation, that was the turning point of the debate. They may or may not have understood the intricacies of the Hyde Act. But they did recognise the corruption that had been hidden.
Sections of the urban middle class which welcomed the idea of closer relations with America [you could call them the Green Card Party of India] felt utterly betrayed by a man they had trusted, and besmirched by corruption.
In the process, Dr Manmohan Singh has one remarkable achievement: he has united the Opposition. For the last three decades, this has been the most difficult act in Indian politics. The irony is that he subverted what Mrs Sonia Gandhi had woven in order to bring the Congress back to power: she had used the Gujarat riots to create a formidable coalition against the BJP. Dr Singh has destroyed that framework by breaking with the Left and turning the Congress into an irredeemably right-wing organisation, with a foreign policy to match its economic thrust. This turn to the right will change the character of the Congress irrevocably.
By opting for the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, he has catapulted a dynamic agent of social change, Mayawati, into the leadership of the Third Front. Mayawati is the only regional leader with a national base, for she has a constituency in every constituency of India. She can lend Dalit support to an ally in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh as easily as in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. Her candidates do not have to win; by contesting they slice enough Congress votes by ensure its defeat. It would have made more sense for the Congress to keep Mayawati as any ally, but that would need a leader who was a mathematician instead of a cash-broker.
The Government is trying very hard to "prove" that Mayawati is corrupt. Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh must be regretting deeply that they let her off the in the Taj-market development case during those happy days when they were attempting a deal with her instead of Mulayam Singh. The important fact is that Mayawati's voters are unimpressed by such accusations against their leader. She has empowered them and they are grateful to her.
Corruption is not a sudden swerve into perdition for the Congress: the first jeep scandal [an extremely innocuous, by today's standards, desire for vehicles] broke out before the first general election in 1952. But flexibility in election expenditure is one thing; the purchase of elected MPs at exorbitant rates quite another. Venality turned into a rot when P.V. Narasimha Rao purchased Shibu Soren and his MPs in order to save his minority Government. Dr Manmohan Singh was finance minister, and no one heard the mildest protest from him. Perhaps he thought that he could repeat what his guru Narasimha Rao had managed. What was it that Marx said? History repeats itself, first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. But Dr Singh does not read Marx.
Power seems to have changed Dr Singh's character and temperament in crucial ways. Was it too much to expect some grace from him in this purchased victory? Instead, in his reply to the House he descended to the personal. That is not done.
But what is the point of expecting decorum when Parliament has been turned into a School for Scandal?
Saturday, July 26, 2008
Byline by M J Akbar: Headmaster of A School for Scandal
Saturday, July 19, 2008
There is inflation in the political bazaar. Dr Manmohan Singh can now be held responsible for both economic and political inflation, a rare achievement. In such a volatile market, no sale is ever complete until delivery.
It was as easy to esteem Chaudhry Charan Singh as to underestimate him. I knew him reasonably well during the critical days when he brought down the Janata government in 1979 and won the undying contempt of urban India which had invested so much passion in the first non-Congress government in Delhi. At one level he had charming simplicity. There was nothing he enjoyed more, after work, than playing ludo with his wife.
But he also had a sharp self-interest in the rural, Jat- dominated constituency of west Uttar Pradesh. Since he was the pre-eminent leader of the Jats, the line between individual and collective was often blurred. In his mind, what was good for rural India was good for him, which is fair enough; but the reverse held equally true. What was good for him became ipso facto good for rural India.
He had the rustic virtue of trust; but in the end he became a victim of the rustic vice of naiveté. He broke the Morarji Desai government and became Prime Minister on the basis of support offered by Mrs Indira Gandhi. But the Congress stabbed him in the back soon after he stabbed Morarji Desai in the front. Mrs Gandhi withdrew support, and Chaudhry Charan Singh became the first, and only, Prime Minister who could not summon a session of Parliament.
Three decades later, in one of those U-turns for which history is famous, his son Ajit Singh's single-digit strength in Parliament could help keep Mrs Gandhi's daughter-in-law, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, in power. A sweetener has been spread before Ajit Singh. Lucknow airport has been named after his father. There are many reasons for remembering Charan Singh. This is possibly the worst. His name is now inextricably linked to a political bribe.
Given the track record, Ajit Singh should not be surprised if the airport is renamed again if things do not go as expected.
If a lollipop was sufficient to appease Ajit Singh, he would have announced his support to Dr Manmohan Singh's nuclear deal without any delay. His hesitation and willingness to socialise with distinctly anti-nuclear deal politicians indicate that he has a little more on his shopping list. Since his political outfit is confined to west Uttar Pradesh, he can never become Chief Minister unless he carves out a separate state. He wants a new one to be called Harit Pradesh.
Shibu Soren from Jharkhand, with five MPs, is demanding a place in the Cabinet with the lucrative coal portfolio, currently in the hands of a Congress fundraiser. Soren was dropped from Manmohan Singh's Cabinet for a fairly dramatic reason. He was accused of being involved in a secretary's murder. He has been exonerated and wants his job back, with some back pay if possible. The Telangana Rashtra Samiti wanted a separate Telangana, and became anti-nuclear when there was no response from the Union government. We have already witnessed the blatant intervention of corporate interests in the survival of the government. The unedifying sight of convicted murderers turning up to save or scupper the nuclear deal will doubtless fuel editorials worldwide on the mature state of Indian democracy.
There is inflation in the political bazaar. Dr Manmohan Singh can now be held responsible for both economic and political inflation, a rare achievement. In such a volatile market, no sale is ever complete until delivery. Mulayam Singh promised 39 MPs. On Friday in Delhi only 26 MPs attended the party meeting. It is possible that some MPs may have been afflicted with Mayawati-induced stomach upsets, and a few with heartache; and they may indeed turn up to vote behind the leader on the evening of 22 July. Sometimes 72 hours can be even longer than a week in politics.
Given such intense bargaining, the price of victory for the government might be far higher than the temporary despair of defeat. There is already an SMS doing the rounds which does not make pleasant reading for those in power: "Wanted: convicts, murderers, mafia, jailbirds, criminals 2 vote 4 Trust Vote. Parties need u if u r any of the above. U will get CM's post, Ministership, airport named after ur father etc. Good citizens need not apply."
In times of meltdown, we thirst for a glimpse into the future, and track it along the seam lines of what politicians can do. There is a much surer way of finding out. Check out what politicians cannot do, and you will discover what they will do.
Eliminate the impossible, and the possible begins to define itself.
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 self-interest in the garb of national interest, but that cloth has worn thin.
The Left could never accept a strategic alliance with the United States, which is at the heart of the proposed relationship. 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. 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 strategic alliance will create a balance of power between India and China.
Who is right is less relevant 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.
Mulayam Singh's decision to support the Congress has nothing to do with 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 has unnerved him. The Congress, bed-ridden but not quite dead, makes a perfect ally, because it is too frail to make an independent bid for power.
When it comes to a division of Uttar Pradesh's 80 seats, Mulayam Singh will bargain with bare knuckles. The Congress will be lucky if Mulayam offers the party ten seats 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 UP's 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. The Congress will effectively eliminate itself from the spine of the nation, the Indo- Gangetic belt. If, five years or more later, the electorate tires of regional parties and seeks a national alternative, the only national party in Uttar Pradesh left standing will be the BJP.
Dr Manmohan Singh began with a majority of nearly 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. We will soon see who wins the numbers game. What we do know already is that the government has lost its credibility.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
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.
Saturday, July 12, 2008
Byline By M.J. Akbar: How public is Public Opinion?
As Parliament gears up for a vote of confidence on the Congress-driven nuclear deal, evidence of base realities is beginning to seep upwards. The virtual split in the Indian Union Muslim League over the deal tells its own story.All opinion is not public. This is one reason why public opinion polls so often get it wrong. Some sections of the Indian public — generally, the less confident — prefer to keep their views to themselves, partly out of a nagging fear that the establishment might react adversely to a hostile opinion. And partly out of a sense of property rights in a democracy: why should anyone else know what I think? Let them find out when they check the ballot box. Instead of leading the opinion pollster towards the broad truth, the voter might even deliberately mislead.
Many Indian Muslims, a minority that has learnt to maximise its democratic opportunities, have become sophisticated in the art of misleading the establishment. In the absence of any direct communication with the grassroots, or the tea-stall, the establishment prefers to get its information through an intermediary class, the most prominent of which is the clergy.
Whenever political parties want to advertise "Muslim" support, they parade a queue of grey beards. Maulanas do have their place in Muslim society, a prominent one, but they are not the only determinants or mirrors of opinion. Their influence can be overestimated. It is hardly a secret that some of the Indian clergy are sustained by the establishment and can be counted upon to echo whatever any government wants to hear. Very few of the Maulanas- for-hire actually believe in the statements they make for Delhi's consumption. The rhetoric of the same Maulanas at the next Friday khutba [the sermon at Friday prayers] could easily be at great variance from their public posture a few days before.
Muslim voters, in any case, are not mechanical one-source consumers. They hear, they watch, they read but, most important, they remember. They are affected by their individual woes, but equally bear a strong sense of community. Television has made the world a village, and Iraq is as close to Kerala as Gujarat.
As Parliament gears up for a vote of confidence on the Congress-driven nuclear deal, evidence of base realities is beginning to seep upwards. The virtual split in the Indian Union Muslim League over the deal tells its own story. On 25 June, just a day before he died in Mumbai, G.M. Banatwala, then the party's national president, issued a press statement saying that the deal was not acceptable and that the party should oppose George Bush's "imperialism". He advised the Congress to "reconsider its decision". This of course was unpalatable to the establishment lobby within the IUML, led by E. Ahamed, who has done well as Minister of State for External Affairs in the UPA. He has the distinction of being the first Muslim League minister in Delhi since 1947. The pro-government section of the party therefore has a vested interest in supporting what the Congress orders it to do, and will ratchet up the usual list of advantages and alibis in defence of its alliance with the Congress. But there was strong resistance when the deal was discussed at a three-hour meeting of the party in Mallapuram on 10 July. The compromise that emerged was a typical fudge: the party would vote for the government, not the deal, and would convey Muslim anxiety to Congress president Sonia Gandhi. "The Muslim community is worried about the deal," said Panakkad Syed Muhammadali Shihab Thangal, president of the Kerala unit.
The Muslim League has rivals for the space it has acquired in the Malayali Muslim's affections. The most notable competitor is the People's Democratic Party, led by Abdul Nazar Madani. Madani publicly castigated the League and added, "The Muslim community across the world has been facing atrocities sponsored by the United States. The deal with an anti-Muslim country should have been opposed by the IUML." The CPI(M), which would like nothing better than to crack open the hold that the League traditionally has over the Muslim vote in Kerala, has accused the IUML of being loyal to American imperialism, adding for good measure that the Congress was in collusion with America, which had killed Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.
Like all other voters Indian Muslims too are influenced by both regional and national issues: the Muslim League's views in Kerala does not impact on the way Muslims vote in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. But on national and international issues there is a clear majority view across the states. The nuclear deal is both a national and an international issue, and it is only logical that national and international realities will enter the argument.
The only point being consistently hammered by Congress, Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party and the IUML in order to change Muslim sentiment is the spectre of BJP in all its manifestations. Let us look at the list.
At the top is the statement that if you oppose the deal it will help communal forces, in that it will enable the BJP to come to power. Does this mean that the Congress and UPA have already conceded defeat in a future election? I thought the Congress believed that the nuclear deal would be an election-winner, sweeping up votes with every clause. In fact, instead of searching for a harrowing and narrow victory in Parliament, the Congress should have had the confidence to go the people and been vindicated by their support. The Congress did not have the courage to do so because it does not believe the deal to be a vote-winner. If the BJP-led NDA wins, it will not be because of the deal, but because of the mismanagement of the nation over four years.
Second: the Congress tried desperately to get BJP support for the deal, and is still propping up former national security adviser Brajesh Mishra in order to try and break BJP unity. Would the deal or the Congress have become communal if the BJP had supported it?
The most lurid accusation is charging the CPI[M] with supporting "communal" forces because it opposes the deal. The Congress has a very convenient memory. The last time that a government was defeated on the floor of the House, the Congress and the BJP voted together — to bring down the V.P. Singh government. Did that make Congress, and Rajiv Gandhi, who was leader of the party then, communal? During the term of the V.P. Singh government the Marxists and the BJP were allies, supporting Singh. They had weekly dinners, from which Harkishan Surjeet and L.K. Advani would emerge, smiling and laughing for the cameras. Did that make Surjeet communal? Why should Prakash Karat become communal because he is against the nuclear deal, for reasons, incidentally, different from the BJP? You have to be very arid, mentally, and believe as well that Indian politicians and voters have nothing called a memory chip in their brains in order to market such logic.
It would take a very inept government to lose a test on the floor of the House that it had sought. Dr Manmohan Singh has brought down his majority from over a hundred to perhaps five or less, but surely he could not have dragged it into negative territory. The real test, however, is not a contest for 272 MPs in this Parliament, but for 272 MPs in the next one. Politicians will decide the fate of the Congress in the coming days. Voters will decide its fate in the coming months.
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
-by M J Akbar
COVERT (1st-15th JULY 2008)
In the second last week of June, after nearly fifty months of office, Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered Congress President Sonia Gandhi one of two options. She could either support the Singh-George Bush nuclear partnership and shoot herself in the Left foot, or she could abandon the Marxists who had carried the government on their uneven shoulders and shoot herself in the Right foot. If the bullet went Left, the partnership would fracture, hobbling the Congress severely in its effort to remain the core of a future non-BJP alliance. If the bullet went Right, the credibility of theManmohan Singh government, already in hospital, would be put permanently to sleep.
The root of the dilemma is a paradox. Dr Manmohan Singh has run a Right-wing government with Left-wing support. The Prime Minister is Right, if not right, by instinct and conviction. The Marxists knew this, but calculated that if this was the price to be paid to keep the BJP out, then so be it. Every price is a trade-off between cost and value. The Left offered Dr Manmohan Singh a credit card, but every credit card has an upper limit, unless you are a fool ready to be parted with all your money. The upper limit was reached with the strategic, technological and economic partnership that the Prime Minister arranged with the United States, a pact that would keep India in the American camp for the foreseeable future.
Dr Manmohan Singh came to power on the strength of the common man, the aam aadmi. He has spent four years courting just one khaas aadmi, George Bush. It was his bad luck, I presume, that the alliance should have been with a man who is now the most unpopular President in the history of the United States since polling began in 1928. But one must laud the power of true love: nothing could deter Dr Manmohan Singh from investing all his assets in one man, Bush.
In actual fact, Mrs Sonia Gandhi had little real choice. Allies like the DMK, desperate for a few extra months in power, largely so that they could make yet more money, urged her to save the government. You can only save what exists, and Dr Manmohan Singh’s government no longer exists. The joy has gone out of this administration, as is evident from every photograph of any Cabinet Minister; they look punctured and limp.
If that statement surprises you, it is because we associate a break with a sharp sound, and there has been no such crackle from Delhi. But only something hard breaks with a snap. Think instead of a cake. Have you ever heard a cake crumble? Disintegration can also be soundless.
The image of a cake is doubly appropriate because this government has lived on the principle of a cake won in a lottery. Everyone has been digging into the national cake with a diligence and greed that will find their place in the annals of our time, while the Prime Minister has watched helplessly, unable and unwilling to control the corruption that is rife.
Dr Manmohan Singh has worn a brilliant camouflage. He has smiled his way through four years. He positioned himself above politics, which won him much empathy among the urban middle class, which has grown tired of the cynicism that imbues contemporary politics. But politics was always lurking below him, in its many different manifestations. Perhaps he began to believe that CPI[M] general secretary Prakash Karat too was purchaseable, and all it needed was successful negotiation to complete the deal. He forgot the upper limit of the Marxist credit card, beyond which an individual or an institution becomes a pauper. The distance between wealth and the poorhouse is often no more than a single mistake.
The final decision on the direction of the bullet was not in Dr Manmohan Singh’s hands, because he has always been in office, rather than in power. But his assessment was correct when he told Mrs Sonia Gandhi on the morning of 18 June that he could not continue as Prime Minister if the nuclear deal was aborted. He is identified with a single cause, central to his Prime Ministership, both domestically and internationally. In India, he cannot go to the electorate with nothing to say except that he had survived by pawning his convictions. In the more immediate term, he surely wondered how he was going to face Parliament during the Monsoon Session. Between a deflated deal and inflated prices, the enlarged Opposition (now including the Left) will expose the government’s impotence each day on national television. A majority in Parliament is more than a technical necessity; it must be a vocal fact, or a government can get drowned. One of the advantages of an early election would be that the Singh government would not have to face a Parliament session during which it could get repeatedly humiliated.
Out of India, the Prime Minister would be a faceless nonentity at the G-8 Summit in Japan between 7 and 9 July, the last opportunity to push through a deal with the personal intervention of the Singh-Bush partnership. The official deadline for the compact is 20 January 2009, the day Bush demits office and hands over power, hopefully, to Barack Obama. The practical deadline is 9 July 2008. To have any hope of success, Dr Manmohan Singh must reach Japan with a formal decision in his files. Anything else would fetch him a few wan smiles, and an occasional hullo while the rest continue with discussions of substance between themselves.
I am an avid reader of bridge columns, largely because the mathematics of games of chance can be engrossing. But there is a second reason to check out some of the popular American bridge columns. They tend to begin with a wisecrack, which may or may not be wise, but is certainly a crack. On the day after the non-meeting between the government and the Left, Frank Stewart of the New York Times had a good opening bon mot: “If you let a smile be your umbrella, your rear end will get soaking wet.”
For four years Dr Manmohan Singh has let his smile be his umbrella, and the monsoons have arrived.