Nothing personal, this is Business
By M J Akbar
Fish, said Mao Zedong, do not swim in pure water. Dr Manmohan Singh is no Maoist but he should, by now, know a thing or two about swimming upstream. He could, of course, point out that pollution is not very good for the health of fish either.
Realists know that integrity is a variable virtue. If Dr Singh were to impose fiscal-virginity on his cabinet ministers, Saint Antony of Kerala would be burdened with too many portfolios. Those who choose to believe that the kerfuffle with the DMK was only about incompetence, or its elder brother corruption, or a triple-deck sundae with one family layer too many, is confusing facts with television coverage.
The operating law in politics owes much to a management principle made immortal by Mario Puzo in Godfather. There is nothing personal about it; this is business.
The Congress has begun its campaign for the next general election. It shed some allies during the polls; it has begun to pluck feathers from others after the results. It wants to check today those it seeks to displace tomorrow. Tamil Nadu has entered its radar screen since the Congress increased its share to 14 seats in the alliance. Why not 39 tomorrow?
As Kanshi Ram, the founder of BSP, used to say if there was anyone around to listen, elections are the only time that a party grows in substantive terms. Congress has done far better than expectations in Maharashtra, so it makes no sense to settle for stagnation. Its stark message to Sharad Pawar has political logic: merge, or find your own way to nirvana. Old allies may be tolerated during transition, but on a basis of diminishing returns.
The feast of 2004 was egalitarian. The menu at the high table in 2009 will differ sharply from that at the low table. Allies who want something better than peanuts are welcome to dine elsewhere. In 2004 the mood was inclusive, barring odd guests like Mulayam Singh Yadav. In 2009 the door is wide open for those who want to leave, and barred for late arrivals.
Neither tears nor trauma are useful in such circumstances. On Thursday evening Lalu Prasad Yadav, who once floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, wondered why he was being treated like a fly without a wall. (The wall may be my contribution to the image, but the fly was certainly his metaphor even as he promised that he would return.) The sharper allies picked this up quickly. When it comes to political poker, Karunanidhi plays blind with his eyes open. When the stakes were raised, and his government in Tamil Nadu was threatened, he doubled the stakes. If he was at risk in Chennai so was Dr Manmohan Singh in Delhi. Karunanidhi was right.
Dr Farooq Abdullah’s flight to some salubrious Friday evening entertainment was equally to the point. Everything is political, even a ticket to a T20 semi-final. Sharad Pawar is the supremo of IPL. Pawar and Abdullah are close friends. The signal from South Africa was in double code. Delhi deciphered it quickly. On Thursday evening, Dr Manmohan Singh tried to disguise the hard news that there was no place for Farooq in the cabinet with a soft, even sentimental touch. By the time Farooq had landed in South Africa, the hard news had changed. He would become a cabinet minister by Tuesday. Two men leaving on a jetplane, one to Chennai and the other to South Africa, turned the inaugural ball of Friday evening into an interim arrangement.
The Congress has not won power in order to lose it. But a fundamental question has shifted on its axis. In 2004, it was about how many friends the Congress wanted. In 2009, it is about how many adversaries the Congress can afford as it maneuvers its way to the next plateau. A cost-benefit analysis is being done for every state. It is easy to be high-minded about Shibu Soren in Delhi, but his displeasure will draw blood in Ranchi.
Congress and Mamata form the perfect fit, because they are still only half-way to a common destination, Writers Building in Kolkata. She wants a stable government in Delhi because there is compatibility in Kolkata. Both are determined to destroy the Left. Mamata wants supremacy in Bengal, the Congress has primacy in India. Her needs in Delhi, unlike the DMK’s, are limited. She would not know what to do with a second cabinet post, for it would force to promote one person from a tier of deputies, creating volatile peer resentment as throwing up a parallel star within her orbit.
Sharad Pawar and Congress remain married but don’t look as if they are made for each other. Maharashtra, like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is an inevitable target for Congress expansion, and there is an Assembly election in four months. Congress won 15 seats, Pawar only nine. The Congress will demand a restructuring of the seat in the Assembly around that ratio. Will Pawar be able to absorb a cut without marginalizing his party? Or will try and emulate the courageous Naveen Patnaik, break free and offer himself as the next chief minister of his state?
The results were a verdict on the past; government formation is about shaping the future. A comprehensive victory has created some apprehensive allies.