Byline by M J Akbar: Forward to the 18th Century!
Such is the uncertainty of our times that astrologers are searching for politicians almost as fervently as politicians are looking for astrologers. Both sets of professionals want to feed off the other’s core competence. To be fair, politicians are far more unsure than astrologers. Their nervousness is understandable. They have much more to lose.
A good indicator in the circumstances might be called the “Nerve Test”. Who is better at holding his or her nerve, particularly in the edgy matter of negotiating for seat-share in an alliance? There is not a single party of any significance without an ally; indeed, which is not in search of more allies than it has. Leaders like Sharad Pawar have made no secret of their position. Their electoral ally, whoever it may be, is only a stepping-stone to post-poll alliances that could be dramatically different. Pawar is being honest. At least half a dozen others have the same scenario in mind but will not go public because of political or personal inhibitions. They do not know who among them will win the lottery, but each one is clutching a ticket.
Sixty years of democracy has brought Indian politics to the 18th century in one crucial respect. Delhi does not determine the fortunes of the regions; the provinces decide who will hold how much power in an increasingly wobbly Delhi.
The battle for Delhi will begin after we have established who is the new Chhatrapati of the Marathas, the Nawab [or Begum] of Awadh, the Maharaja of Punjab, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Sultan of Mysore, the Maharaja of Darbhanga, the Rani [or Raja] of Jhansi, the Maharaja of Gwalior, of Bharatpur, of Vadodara — and of course discover whether indolent Bengal has fallen to the East India Company or not. It cannot have escaped your attention that the person on the gaddi of the Delhi court has absolutely nothing to say or do about the regional power-plays. He waits to be either retained or replaced. The decision is with others. That is precisely what the fate of the Mughal Emperor was for three quarters of the 18th century.
Regional powers will regroup after 16 May, when their precise strength will become clear, and an epic battle of Panipat will follow to determine the fate of Delhi throne.
In the interests of the nation’s nerves if not the politicians’, we can only hope that the battle of Panipat will be swift, sharp and decisive. It could so easily become a desultory squabble stretching over weeks.
Three politicians with a reputation for both temper and temperament are handling the preamble to the first round in a surprisingly cool manner. Mayawati, Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee can leave a trail of destroyed egos in their wake, but their legislators put up with them because they have the support of the voter. All three have one fixed, non-negotiable target. Otherwise, they are as flexible as the situation warrants or opportunity permits. Mayawati will have nothing to do with Mulayam Singh Yadav, Jaya with DMK and Mamata with the CPI[M]. Their opponents return the sentiment. Politics is personal, as it so often was in the 18th century during the long decline and fall of the Mughal Empire. They have no hesitation in negotiating with any other party, whether it is the Congress or the BJP. P.V. Narasimha Rao had a pact with Mayawati in 1996, a decision from which the Congress has not yet recovered. The Congress has not been able to re-enter the space it vacated for Mayawati, and then lost more. Mamata was in the Congress, broke away, became an ally of the BJP and is now a partner of the Congress [unless there is a last-minute collapse]. Jayalalithaa, who had a sharp remark or two to make about foreigners holding positions of power in India, recalled recently that Mrs Indira Gandhi treated her like a daughter in an effort to work an alliance with Congress. All three are unfazed by questions, or simply indifferent to accusations. That is cool.
Are they also confident? They are, but not over-confident. That is why they are ready to discuss alliances, but not willing to surrender more than a pre-determined number of seats. Mamata will not give the Congress more than 12 viable seats in Bengal, plus a couple which the Congress can never hope to win. Jayalalithaa would never have been as generous to the Congress as the DMK is going to be. Mayawati of course is engineering social alliances rather than partisan ones, in the valid assumption that voters are more dependable than parties.
It is the compelling draw of the voter that has taken Naveen Patnaik out of the NDA. An alliance cannot be frozen in stone. The base of parties either expands or shrinks depending on public perception. If a party feels that the votes have stopped being transferable, or that it is giving more than it gets, then tensions arise. The question in Orissa is whether Patnaik hopes to increase his share by dipping into the Congress vote or the BJP vote — or perhaps both. Such are the questions that make a psephologist rich and an astrologer go crazy. Clarity will come on 16 May when the secrets of the electronic voting machines begin flickering across television screens.
How many seats will the three ladies control in the next Parliament? If you listen to their lieutenants, their tally could be well in excess of a hundred. A more realistic assessment would keep them somewhat short of three figures. Mamata Banerjee’s ambition is to decimate the Left Front in this election and demolish it in the Assembly polls so that she can become Chief Minister of Bengal. Not easy, but no one said politics was nursery rhyme. The other two have been there, done that. Mayawati is the other regional satrap, apart from Pawar, who has announced her bid for Prime Minister. Jayalalithaa never rejects the possibility.
Such is fluidity of fortune in a year of open relationships, bereft of commitment, that even “impossibles” are trying to smuggle themselves into the “possibles” category. Hearts will burn, of course, by the time a winner is declared. The great role models of the “possibles” are Inder Gujral and H.D. Deve Gowda, who became Prime Ministers out of some conjurer’s hat. Dr Manmohan Singh at least had a substantive party behind him. The mavericks might want to remember how brief those Governments were, and the price that the economy had to pay for instability and uncertainty. 2009 is a year when the country needs a stable Government as rarely before.
If politicians do not care, the voter should.