Congress needs Prozac
By M J Akbar
Byword - In India Today
March 11, 2011
It seems reasonable to suggest that any political organisation with both Stalin and Napoleon on its frontlines, as DMK can boast, should make short shrift of a party with a mere Gandhi at its head. But the Karunanidhi vs Sonia Gandhi sideshow within the larger drama of the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections was always a no-contest. Bluster is hopeless against cool. And when Mrs Sonia Gandhi decides to be cool, polar icecaps break into envious applause. Karunanidhi did not melt because Congress generated extra levels of warmth; he froze when Delhi lowered the temperature. Sonia Gandhi doesn't mind exaggeration, which is after all a normal ploy in the competition for political space. She drew the line at blackmail. She also knew the answer to two questions: Who had more to gain? Who had less to lose?
The DMK's implied threat, to withdraw from the UPA, was always pointless because no party wants another General Election so soon, which is the only possible consequence of destabilising Dr Manmohan Singh. An alternative government within this Parliament is impossible, for the very reason that has created distance between the Congress and the DMK: corruption. The BJP can hardly hug the DMK after targeting A. Raja and the Karunanidhi family as the epitome of evil. There is no support for a no-confidence motion. The Government's majority will be tested, if at all, in 2012. Nor can DMK fight an Assembly election alone. Such adventurism could drag it down to single digits.
Karunanidhi had nowhere to go except back to Congress. Partners understand the occasional tantrum. The art of politics is tested in the management of a tantrum; you need to punish the prodigal, but not humiliate him too much. Mrs Gandhi measured her response carefully, stepping between indifference and accommodation. The political pirouette was played out with finesse, with a cameo role allotted for the official Congress counsellor for marital disputes, Pranab Mukherjee.
The bad news is that while the alliance might survive, the relationship is over. DMK and Congress are now travelling in opposite directions, dexterously evading a collision. There is nothing sentimental about the rupture, although Karunanidhi's grievance is personal.
He believes that he brought Congress to power in 2004, and that debt can be repaid only with a blank cheque. Congress did compensate with delay after Raja looted the treasury, but the Supreme Court ended such generous back-scratching. Perhaps Karunanidhi thinks that a clever government ought to evade a court's orders. The prime minister does not know how to, and the Congress does not want to. Sops offered to calm nerves, perhaps in the form of a deal over CBI's pursuit of the Karunanidhi family, will not survive the scrutiny of Parliament or the Supreme Court. Moreover, this spat, coming on top of 2G corruption, has ravaged this alliance's credibility. If DMK-Congress lose in Tamil Nadu, the equation alters. The Congress will need DMK in Delhi, but not be able to reciprocate in Chennai. How long can you walk on a one-way street?
It is ironic that Mrs Sonia Gandhi, who can play the macro game well enough, should flounder at the micro level. At times she seems to understand her allies better than her party. Power is normally an aphrodisiac for a party; in the case of Congress, it has become a depressant. Once the Queen of the Gangetic Belt, the Congress is sagging again in Uttar Pradesh, close to negative territory in Bihar and at the whim of its own byproduct, Mamata Banerjee, in Bengal. The Brahmaputra is kinder to Congress fortunes, but that is fringe comfort. After all the huff and puff in Tamil Nadu, Congress will contest only 63 seats out of 234 in Tamil Nadu. Its allies are bargaining for a greater chunk within the UDF in Kerala. Omit Assam, and a startling fact emerges: the Congress is contesting less than 30 per cent of the seats in states that send over 100 seats to the Lok Sabha. This is not a statistic that will encourage the Congress to contest the next elections alone. If the party cannot do this after a decade in power, it will not be able to do so in the foreseeable future.
Its only strategy is dubious. Build no edifice of your own, and wait for others to collapse. The flaw is obvious. There are other players. Laloo Yadav was replaced by Nitish Kumar in Bihar, and the Left is being upstaged by Mamata Banerjee in Bengal. The BJP is on the move in Orissa, and inching back to visibility in Uttar Pradesh. Jagan Reddy is the flavour of the moment in Andhra Pradesh. The Congress clearly has two problems: one with its foes, and the other with its friends. If it does not create some distance from its friends, it could be outdistanced by its foes.