From Byword- India Today (January 13)
The much-married diva Elizabeth Taylor had an unanswerable riposte for a pesky reporter after one of her husbands, Mike Todd, went up to the Great Hollywood in the Sky. "Mike's dead," she said, "what do you want me to do, sleep alone?"
Elizabeth Taylor should be formally recognised as the defining icon of contemporary Indian politics. True love has its limits. Romance is nice, but not essential to fill a bed. What do you expect political parties to do when a partner is dead or departed? In practical terms, the second is worse than the first, just as a divorcee has more problems than a widow.
Alliances do not come apart for tactical reasons. They disintegrate over strategic interests. In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee and Congress are not squabbling. They are preparing for the inevitable battle for the same space. Both Mamata and Congress know that the Left Front will need a decade in Bengal before it can revive, but that there is an election due in another four years. The Congress will be Mamata's principal opposition in the next Assembly elections. For the Congress, the Trinamool Congress is an usurper and a maverick intervention in what should have been a natural return to power for the Congress.
The Congress lost Bengal in stages, through a two-step alliance between a breakaway Congress faction and the Left. Its first manifestation, in the 1967 elections, was the United Front. It took ten turbulent years, including a bloody Naxalite insurrection and the Emergency, for the Left Front to emerge as the natural ruling force of Bengal in 1977. While there is no certainty in politics, it is possible that Congress will mount a similar two-stage assault on Mamata Banerjee, which means an initial alliance with the Left in the next Assembly polls. Mamata Banerjee is certainly worried about such a possibility, not least because it makes sense for those determined to dislodge her at any cost.
Congress and Left are not in a hurry because time is always on the side of Opposition. Mamata Banerjee is in a hurry for precisely the same reason. She has to maximise her strength at the peak of her popularity. There is after all only one direction in which you can travel from a peak, downwards. Mamata Banerjee has a vested interest in a mid-term poll, because she (along with Jayalalithaa) is certain to make huge gains from a Parliament election. She could easily have 30 or even more MPs if polls were held this year, with commanding Cabinet portfolios in the next Central government. Some of the butter salesmen in her entourage might even be encouraging dreams about the Prime Minister's gaddi.
Ideally, Congress would have wanted Mamata Banerjee to merge her party into the national organisation, but the Lady of Calcutta has tasted independence, always dear to a Bengali's temperament. Conversely, the patterns emerging out of Uttar Pradesh suggest a slow transition that fructify into a Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance that could, in a few years, lead to merger. Congress is not as hopeless in UP as it is in Bihar, but nor is it a natural claimant for power. It needs some bulk infusion of ground presence, in addition to its high-flyer leaders. SP provides that. There are no serious ideological differences between the two parties, given that ideology has shrivelled into a corpse anyway.
SP faces one serious problem, however. For nearly half a century UP has been a rewarding playground for fractious parties. The reasons are slowly becoming irrelevant. UP's political consciousness, shaped by the freedom movement, as a bulwark of nationalism and natural home of prime ministers, will reassert itself, and sooner rather than later. The next general elections could well be the last in which regional parties get any mileage; after that the state will gravitate between the Congress and the BJP. Regional leaders will have to choose in order to survive. The appetite for separate identity will fade once the vote begins to wither.
Mulayam Singh Yadav was weaned by Dr Ram Manohar Lohia's socialist, anti-Congress thesis. His son and heir Akhilesh wears the party red cap but has no real interest in such baggage. Mulayam is a child of the Hindi movement of the 1960s. Akhilesh is a child of the English movement that has been such a remarkable fact of the last two decades in India. The British Raj has been replaced, after an uncertain gap of a few decades, by an English Raj. Its powerful bureaucrats in media have already discovered, to their delight, that Akhilesh is "one of us". The English-centric Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav make comfortable partners, and might wonder why they are contesting on separate symbols, and for the same Muslim vote, by a general election in 2019.
Both in the contrivance of Hollywood and the simulation of politics, marriage is a pact held together by convenience.