Crown prince Rahul cannily turns left
By M J Akbar
Has Rahul Gandhi launched a campaign against Congress? More precisely, has the heir presumptive, affectionately dubbed a modern Lord Krishna by his more fervent fans, begun to undermine the Congress establishment, at the pinnacle of which sits Manmohan Singh and his home minister P Chidambaram?
This makes some political sense. Having milked the right-of-centre to the point of exhaustion, the Rahul Congress is steering towards left-of-centre. Meanings, of course, have changed. As the centre has shifted in the last two decades, 'right' and 'left' have moved along with it. 'Left' now represents populism, rather than ideology. Marx died in the 1990s and even his ghost cannot escape from the effective burial given by comrades Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping.
The sabotage of big-ticket investment in order to fence the tribal vote in Orissa is only part of the developing story. The official catechism describes Naxalites as the biggest threat to India. If Chidambaram had his way, the air force would be bombing them. He must be a bit deflated at the sight of Lado Sikoka, a Naxal, preceding Rahul Gandhi at an Orissa public meeting around the same time that Manmohan Singh was urging, from a dais in Delhi, police chiefs to fight the good fight against Maoists. Sikoka had been arrested by this police on August 9 and beaten up, before being released so that he could welcome Rahul Gandhi with a garland at Niyamgiri.
It has always been clear to Delhi insiders that Digvijay Singh opened a front against Chidambaram with Rahul Gandhi's permission. Outsiders now have confirmation. Since politics has very marginal room for sentiment, Chidambaram could become the first casualty in a Rahul Gandhi cabinet. It would be a sad end to a fizzing career were Chidambaram to end up as governor of Chhattisgarh, the better to counsel his supporters in the BJP on how to tackle Naxalites without help from the air force. Indeed, it cannot have been very helpful to our ambitious home minister that the most laudatory references now come from BJP leaders. Perhaps he raised the issue of "saffron terror" to pick up some long overdue brownie points from his own side.
No prizes for guessing who would become home minister in a Rahul Gandhi government.
The ultimate success for a ruling party is that delicious bipolar ability to occupy both government and opposition space. The British in India perfected the art of functioning through a loyal opposition. The Muslim League was so loyal that not a single League leader went to jail during the three decades of our independence movement. The Congress tended to be less loyal, but always recognized limits, until Mahatma Gandhi liberated the Congress and enough Indians from either fear or temptation. One cannot think of a Congress leader who did not go to jail.
Democracy, but naturally, induced a variant. Jawaharlal Nehru ignored the feeble right and absorbed the non-communist left into the Congress in periodic stages. His own leftist credentials were impeccable, which helped.
Indira Gandhi artfully split the left and right, until the Emergency united the rest against Congress. Their common antipathy lasted, more or less, until the NDA gave Congress and the left common cause. The new element is the sudden implosion of the Left in Bengal, which threatens to convert vacant space into a vacuum. Even as Congress and Mamata Banerjee seek to destroy the CPM, they know the value of Marxist sentiment in the country's polity.
It is axiomatic that a largely impoverished nation needs a political party that the poor can identify with. The Congress has set out to be the party of the poor in daytime, and of the rich at night. Its sunlight politics will fetch votes, its twilight policies will enable it to govern. This is an extremely clever act whose opening scenes are being played out for a new generation that is vague about Indira Gandhi and amnesiac about Nehru. The hero of this drama must have the charisma to dazzle the poor and the flexibility to keep the rich onside. That is the challenge before Rahul Gandhi. His avowed role is to be the guardian of the poor in Delhi, which means that the poor need protection from Delhi. He is at home with the elite in the evening and is now making the effort to capture the sunshine hours.
However, regional parties have been there, done that. They continue to do so. Naveen Patnaik understands the trap of governance. He has been forced to take a position on one side or the other of the day-night constituencies; and he does not have a Manmohan Singh to play the foil. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee could not manage this contradiction, but others have learnt. Patnaik, Nitish Kumar, Mayawati or Chandrababu Naidu will not be pushovers.
Paradox and problem intersect in any country; India's size and potential make the challenge more complex. We will see whether Congress has the agility to use power to transfer power to yet another generation.
( Times of India Column - Siege Within/Out of Turn)