In an acoustic shadow
By M J Akbar
Third Eye - Byword in India Today April 15, 2011
The question was moot: should a government rush in to pre-empt a crisis with some deft foot-play; or does it make more sense to wait, bide your time and see if the crisis falls into a ditch on the way to your doorstep? The context of this conversation over an amiable lunch in New York was Cairo's Tahrir Square, but it could so easily have been Jantar Mantar in Delhi.
Long experience in power has taught the Congress to wait. So much can happen along the way. A challenge can run out of steam, get diverted by the unforeseen, split into disarray by dysfunctional leadership. Why develop a long-term strategy when short-term tactics will do? Those at the pinnacle content themselves with minimal verbal intervention, leaving noise in the custody of mid-level leaders who can be disowned in a crunch: ministers without political flesh, or hapless spokesmen taught to spin. When you talk every day, who listens? And if anyone does listen, who remembers?
Time is generally an ally of establishment. Governments prefer the pace of sober elephants; and Congress is an elephant with a long memory, heavy tread, institutional demeanour and the amoral ability to crush the skull of an enemy without a pause in its stride when opportunity beckons. But what happens when such an elephant slips on a banana peel? Is that a comedy or a tragedy? Probably a bit of both, to that merciless spectator with a permanent pass to the arena, the voter. Even if the elephant does get back on its feet, its dignity is lost, its majesty punctured.
The UPA Government has slipped in a peculiarly silly manner, repeatedly sending invitations to a whole bunch of bananas as if one or two might be insufficient to destabilise its bearings. Its fatal flaw has been a complete miscalculation about the nature of India's anger against corruption. It dismissed the challenge as yet another ploy from a bedraggled opposition, or, more boringly, some phantom right-wing lurking in the dark shadows of the national psyche. It has encouraged pro-establishment elements to howl against imagined conspiracy, just as it did in the case of Jayaprakash Narayan nearly four decades ago.
The roar that is echoing through the country is the voice of the people, not a political party. The default position of a government under siege is to retreat into an 'acoustic shadow'. This is a term from warfare. The shadow is a strange zone in which you can see the flash of cannon fire but cannot hear any sound, although the thunder may be perfectly audible to those further away. This almost metaphysical condition serves as an unconscious suspension of a faculty that can register some dangerous truth, creating a psychological comfort zone. The UPA is ensconced in this shadow.
Dr Manmohan Singh might have been more comfortable in this crisis were he a complete cynic. He is paying a heavy price for some residual sincerity thoroughly inappropriate to the politics of UPA survival. If all politics is touched by theatre, then the central characters obviously become instruments of high drama.
Dr Singh is principal lead in a five-act tragedy, but neither as Macbeth nor Othello. You can almost see the developing split in his personality as he struggles, Hamlet-like, to be or not to be. His instinct tells him to be; then his lawyers turn up and suggest that he buy time with rhetoric or manipulation of detail, as if this nation were nothing more than a debating society. India expects Dr Singh to act; his lawyerministers tell him to argue.
His dilemma might be explicable to a sympathiser, but will not be condoned by the people. Action involves high risk to his coalition. The arrest of A. Raja in the telecom case has already strained the Congress' flexibility with the DMK to breaking point; the next stretch heads towards the Karunanidhi family. You can flay a scapegoat with as much flourish as you wish, but you cannot condemn the high priest of the temple where you have prayed in partnership. Still waiting in the wings of accountability is a middleweight like Sharad Pawar. Can Dr Singh drop Pawar in his much-promised reshuffle after the Assembly results in May? No.
The government is mired in the status quo, and the status has become septic. Gangrene will waste Congress limbs even as it cripples allies. The only escape route is drastic action, which is improbable, or a general election, which is impossible. In theory there is no threat to the UPA. But governments are elected to rule, not merely to survive. In their present mood, Indians have distilled governance to a single demand: eliminate, or at least control, corruption.
Instead of meeting this crisis head-on, months ago, Dr Singh has allowed the crisis to implode in a serial sequence. Time, they say, waits for no man; but even less so for those who wait for their time to come.