Now, politics is all about posturing
By M J Akbar
Power is the glue of politics. That is why a government is expected to be in array and opposition generally in disarray. Ideology is a fickle custodian of unity in an age of convenience. Its absence has eliminated the difference between single-party rule and coalition government. Both are held together by individual or sectarian self-interest, which is why they last. Ideology is a differentiator; it makes a partnership untenable even if the partners consider it sustainable. Sentiment is irrelevant to any political marriage. This is true of all democracies where coalitions become necessary. Politicians live for power; why would they invite a premature death?
Indian politics, reduced to minimalist, notional ideology, devoid of individual or party accountability, is peculiarly suited to coalitions. If there were accountability, the DMK's A Raja would not remain in Manmohan Singh's Cabinet. Because there is none, the current coalition will survive without either condemnation or confession. An occasional spot of PR-driven tinkering is all that is needed.
Sometimes alliance parties find it convenient to simulate conflict, but this is public posturing to satisfy populist opinion before an election. Bengal and Bihar are the new templates of posture-politics.
Mamata Banerjee would, ideally, like to marginalize Congress and usurp the Congress vote. But as long as Congress has some vote she cannot afford to destroy the alliance. There will be variations in the mathematics of the equation, which is perfectly reasonable, since even a municipal election jerks the kaleidoscope to induce new patterns. The entrails of Bengal's May municipal results must have been fully read by now, but a glaring fact was obvious very early: the Left Front did far better against Congress than against Trinamool. Mamata will consequently squabble for additional space, but she has not lost her political marbles. She knows the tensile strength of her alliance with Congress and will not stretch it to breaking point. Nor does Congress care if her nickname in Delhi has become Derailways Minister. The game is political. A new game may or may not begin after the Bengal Assembly elections next year.
In Bihar, Nitish Kumar and the BJP are equipped with multi-megabyte calculators, which work on long-lasting batteries powered by mutually-beneficial ground reality. The photograph of a Nitish-Narendra Modi armshake was not exactly news to the Bihar voter. It made the front page much before the last general election. A substantial number of Muslims voted for Nitish Kumar in 2009 despite that photo because they wanted to thank him for keeping the peace as well as giving them jobs. They knew they were voting for the NDA. Since then, however, there has been some slippage in minority support for Nitish. Nitish's political gasp at the reappearance of the photo was an attempt to buy a few brownie points at easy rates, a familiar tactic of electoral politics. Similarly, the BJP's gruff huff and puff was intended to energize its own core vote. Neither party will win in Bihar if they split their support, and their leaders have tasted the comforts of office.
The real conflicts in the UPA2 era are not inter-party but intra-party. The BJP has done signal service to news media over the past year, feeding it with a constant supply of stories about personal bickering such as the one over Jaswant Singh's Jinnah book. The author-MP's return to the party marks a partial restoration of sense but much more reparation is needed on the long road ahead to credibility. Congress, as the main ruling party, should have been happily becalmed.
But it has been restive, pushing unpopular policy decisions such as deregulation of petrol prices while its spokespersons shoot themselves in both feet with gold-medal accuracy. For the first time in years they seem to be happier abroad than in domestic TV studios. Congress is complacent because it believes that it has time to recover before the 2014 general election. The states have dropped off the radar because most of them are in a mess.
Congress is suffering from insurrection in Andhra Pradesh, abdication in Karnataka, uncertainty in Maharashtra, indifference in central India, bondage in Bengal, futility in Bihar and drift in Punjab. Its spirits are concentrated around a single hope, that Rahul Gandhi will engineer a miraculous rebirth by offering himself as candidate for UP chief minister in a diamond-versus-dimple election.
Regional parties need their share of headlines and so Mulayam Singh Yadav discovers ways in which to expel Amar Singh, while no soap opera could ever have the courage to script any serial akin to the inheritance wars of the DMK. It is perfectly logical that a feudal culture should breed feuds. There is calm in the one-woman party because its leaders cannot expel themselves. The glue of power melts only in the heat of public anger. Corruption, prices and Bhopal have induced a simmer, but it will need more heat to reach boiling point.
(Times of India column : June 27, 2010)