Prepare for a Marathon at the 2009 Racecourse
By M J Akbar
Astrologers and bookies rise to the top of the trust-totem-pole in the last lap of any election because neurosis is healthy for both callings. Here is a less expensive option: those who want to look ahead might want to look behind.
The excitement of May 2009 has blotted out the excitement of May 2008. The seeds of this election were laid in the glory days of "Singh is King", when Dr Manmohan Singh celebrated independence from Left-slavery and pushed through the nuclear deal amidst chaos in Parliament and hallelujahs on television.
The curse of Prime Ministers is surely the adulation of journalists.
In May 2008, Congress not only undermined the alliance that had kept it in power for four years, but also the equilibrium that could have ensured its return to power. Instability is contagious; it has spread to every relationship within the UPA.
It is curious that the nuclear deal, on which Dr Singh staked the future of the Congress, does not even figure, except through stray references, in the party campaign. Kingdoms have been famously lost for want of a horse. Was a kingdom in Delhi lost for want of horse sense?
We do not know the results yet, and it would require a braver columnist than me to venture into that swamp. We can only read the tea leaves that are strewn after any press conference. But the wounds of actual or perceived betrayal are on public display. They will demand a price when the time comes to patch a government.
We have had many kinds of government in Delhi since 1952, from predictable to stable to ideological to accidental to opportunistic. The next one may be safely labeled a patchwork. It will be a quilt in which each patch struggles for more space than it has been allotted by hasty needlework.
Uncertainty has prompted the inexplicable. It is customary for parties to claim victory before the result, but why would they want to claim defeat? Digvijay Singh envisaged the Congress in opposition. Mrs Sheila Dikshit praised Nitish Kumar, implying that the two politicians who had been unstinting in their praise for Mrs Sonia Gandhi since 2004, Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan, had collapsed. Rahul Gandhi, who has now taken over as leader of the Congress Party, snubbed Lalu Prasad on the eve of his crucial second election in Patliputra. Such flexibility suggests that Karunanidhi should not make the costly mistake of losing an election.
Dr Singh has suddenly remembered that Buddhadev Bhattacharya is his friend. Sentiment is a weak argument against hard policy. As Marx should have said, if he didn't, politics is not a tea party. There is still some legislation necessary (on liability-cover) in the next Parliament to implement the nuclear deal. Will Congress abandon the deal and the efforts it has made to become a strategic partner of the United States in order to remain in power with the Left's support? The Congress would prefer Prakash Karat and A B Bardhan to become as irrelevant to its needs as Mulayam Singh Yadav was in 2004. But would it be blowing come-hither kisses to the Left if it believed that the Congress would remain natural leader of a new coalition after May 16?
Both know that the only compulsion that could bring them together is a desire to keep the BJP out of power. That argument seems to have been overridden by other considerations. The Congress has said repeatedly that it would prefer to sit in Opposition rather than see anyone other than Dr Singh as Prime Minister. Dr Singh is unacceptable to the Left. What gives?
There is more than a single negative in play. Kings and kingmakers both know that there is a zero-sum game in the states. The Left and Mamata Banerjee will not sit at the same table, nor will Mayawati and Mulayam. Can Rajashekhar Reddy and Chandrababu Naidu co-exist? The government in 2004 was formed by straight arithmetic. The one in 2009 will need algebra.
Perhaps the only states where it might be reasonable to predict the outcome are Bihar and Tamil Nadu. The politician who has matured best in the rigors of battle is Nitish Kumar. Anyone who can keep his cool in the ebullience of victory, instead of slipping into fantasy, has the capacity for leadership. Bihar is giving him victory, and he has responded by reasserting his commitment to Bihar. He has the legs for a marathon.
For the rest of India, back to astrologers and bookies. Bookies are considered superior because they seem to put their money where their mouth is. A friend who was born intelligent but has grown wise over many an educational afternoon spent in the exquisite environment of the Kolkata race course, reminded me of the first law of racing. Bookies only make money when the favourite loses. What would a bookie prefer? To get it right, or to get rich? Dumb question.
Appeared in Times of India - May 10, 2009