Saturday, February 27, 2010

Count the numbers when the numbers begin to count

Byline by M J Akbar: Count the numbers when the numbers begin to count

Those who began counting the number of MPs left inside the Lok Sabha when Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee finished his Budget speech before empty Opposition benches have a weak memory. They forgot where Pranab Mukherjee and Dr Manmohan Singh, the two men who run this Government, learnt their ABC. Pranab Mukherjee had a headmistress called Indira Gandhi. Manmohan Singh went to the more complicated seminary presided over by P.V. Narasimha Rao.

To clear any residual confusion, the Prime Minister is a politician of the more subtle kind. He was less of a politician when he was Rao’s Finance Minister, which is why he would get exasperated and at least once sent in his resignation (which Rao ignored). He has now learnt to make the pace of power an ally rather than an adversary.

For the record, during the last phase of the Budget speech, the Government had only 274 MPs on its side, which is as bare a majority as is possible to have. Mukherjee finished his speech without a tremor, and Singh sat unperturbed on his front bench seat. They had learnt at primary school that Governments do not fall because of numbers, they fall when they become uncertain or indecisive or provocative. Mukherjee was a Cabinet minister when Indira Gandhi ran her Government for over two years without a majority in the House. Singh was Finance Minister of a minority Government for at least three Budgets; in fact, Rao began to wobble only after he purchased a majority in the House. Perhaps this was the moment when Dr Singh transited from bureaucrat to politician; survival in office became more important than the means by which he and his Prime Minister survived.

The Prime Minister and Finance Minister know that their Government is safe because while the Opposition may threaten it with a sequence of actions, it is not yet ready for the consequence, a general election. Not a single Opposition party, apart perhaps from Mayawati’s BSP or possibly Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, would gain from an election, and some will certainly be whittled further. It is not just the Government that knows this; Opposition parties do as well. And yet the walkout by all Opposition parties on Friday was neither insignificant nor meaningless.

For starters, it was not spontaneous. It could not have been premeditated since no one knew that the Finance Minister would send out a cordial invitation to a few bulls while sitting in a china shop packed with price-rise cutlery. But the joint action was indicative of an unspoken understanding that has been building among Opposition parties. This has developed out of a pragmatic assessment of predicament. The last election results were a clear signal that if the Congress is not checked, it will swallow up most of their space, and do so without even an ungainly burp. Ideology, therefore, has to make way for strategy. The Marxists cannot block the Congress in Madhya Pradesh; and the BJP cannot challenge the Congress in Bengal or Kerala. But it is in their common interest to keep the Congress down to what might be called manageable numbers in Parliament. This thought cannot have escaped some of the allies of the Congress in the Government. Much as Mamata Banerjee may want to destroy the Marxists, she will not play second fiddle to Congress in the process. Some Congressmen are whispering about a privately commissioned opinion poll that suggests Congress would win if it fought alone in Bengal. If such whispers reach Ms Banerjee, expect a circuitous response.

In politics, the surest way to break your leg is to try and win the Olympic gold in either the long jump or high jump. The only way to move forward is step by gingerly step. Paradoxically, the absence of a clear horizon might actually help such a gradualist approach; you take the journey one milestone at a time and then wait to see if anything cogent is visible on the horizon. The first bit is always floor management in Parliament. If the Opposition parties can find some issue that enables them to rise above their differences, then the very act of unity raises that concern into a national issue. Moreover, if there is no unity on prices then Opposition as a concept has collapsed beyond repair.

The second stage will be much harder, of course, because there are more contradictions in Opposition than there are in UPA. But the next round of Assembly elections will be helpful in clearing Opposition space. We will know, for instance, whether Lalu Yadav can dent Nitish Kumar, or whether the latter’s eminence will move up to pre-eminence. Similarly, in Uttar Pradesh either Mayawati or Mulayam Singh Yadav will prevail. Beyond that, events and circumstances will determine who does what.

Long before the end-game, there comes a midpoint. The numbers that matter are those that count at the end, not at the start or the middle.

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