From Byword – India Today (August 8)
The slings and arrows of fortune, or more accurately misfortune, are a periodic affliction of high office. Serious politicians, however, are not flippant about fate. They do not attribute to divinity what can be measurably sourced to humanity.
Subconsciously, we seek comfort in hard times from the mysterious logic of destiny, which is one explanation for the deep Indian devotion to astrology. But while Delhi's power-mongers definitely keep one eye on the stars, and fill their fingers with protective rings, they keep the second equally firmly planted on their colleagues. When a poisoned arrow strikes, they check out the bungalow next door. That is why the classic Delhi shield is not held in front of the body. It is strapped to the back.
A. Raja and Kanimozhi, the two DMK leaders who have mutated from pillars of the regime in 2009 to caterpillars in the shrubbery by 2011, have had enough time in Tihar to ponder over the source and trajectory of the arrows that hit them in the spine. Their legal response is constructed around a simple question with complicated answers: how does a scapegoat escape the axe?
Conventional escape routes are not available. The DMK is fractured in Chennai and hospitalised in Delhi. Their leader M. Karunanidhi is in anguish, but too weak to alchemise his pain into politics. He does not have enough MPs to threaten the survival of the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi government, a fact that is being fully exploited by the principal beneficiary of the arrangement, Congress. Nothing is more self-destructive in politics than an empty threat.
Raja has in truth only one option. He cannot trouble the government's majority, but he can leave its leaders deeply troubled. That is precisely what he has set out to do.
Such a calibrated response has collateral advantages. The law of intended consequences appeals to other allies within the ruling coalition, which must factor in the possibility that the Congress has reserved a place for its high-fliers in the Scapegoats Corner of Tihar Jail. Sharad Pawar, who thinks through every move with a chess grandmaster's precision, took an unusually public risk when he sent one of his knights, D.P. Tripathi, to say hello to Shahid Balwa in an open courtroom. It was not an overdue courtesy call on an old pal. There was a message written in simple language, without any code. This saga has many more chapters to go, studded with enough twists and turns to make it an aerobic exercise of yogic proportions.
If attack is the best form of defence then counterattack is the most effective form of offense. If a scapegoat can demonstrate that he was not the only head at the head table then he has opened up numerous channels to safety. He will not sink alone but take the boat with him.
Raja has always looked, from his body language, more confident than his circumstances seemed to warrant. Now we know why. He kept the evidence of all those discussions at the high tables of governance. This, by the way, is now de rigeur with Cabinet ministers, from all parties-a classic symptom of unstable, uncertain times. The most effective weapon in the political arsenal is now a photocopier. Everyone keeps true copies of secret files. The president should order the deletion of the secrecy clause when she administers the oath of office.
The Government went for Raja's throat; he has gone for their jugular. Honours even. Or perhaps tilted a bit in Raja's favour. He has nothing more to lose. Mrs Sonia Gandhi, Dr Singh and P. Chidambaram have a government to lose. If Raja has his way, the prime minister and the home minister will be grilled in the witness box, with the nation's chief law officer in the vicinity. That will be a sight for television crews waiting outside the courtroom.
Raja's objective is transparent. He cannot do much about the survival of the upa Government. But he can do a bit about the survival of the government's credibility.
Democracy is much more than a game of numbers. It is a curious fact that Dr Singh was a far more assertive prime minister when his numbers were under continual challenge during his first term. He has been ambushed after he led the Congress to 206 seats in the Lok Sabha. The damage has been done by his friends, while his foes have watched in disbelief.
In any case, 206 is a false number: far below the 272 needed for single-party rule, and just enough to induce that deathly viral known as complacency. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had 271 MPs on his side when he lost the vote in the Lok Sabha, and he was seasoned enough to know that Parliament is not a gambling den.
If you live only by numbers, one day your number will be up.