Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Whiff of 1969

From Byword- India Today

There is a straight connect between the knee and the tongue: Through the jerk. When a political knee jerks, it smashes into your chin, cuts your tongue and produces garble that you can regret in the luxury of time. Mrs Sushma Swaraj is a veteran who has seen the seasons, and is careful with words. She must be wondering which slip of the mind persuaded her to describe Pranab Mukherjee, the leader of her House, the Lok Sabha, and Hamid Ansari, chairman of the Rajya Sabha, as men of insufficient stature for the post of President of India. To be fair, she possibly meant that her preferred candidate for President,
Abdul Kalam, had higher stature than Congress nominees. But that is not what the world heard.

A lapse lasts only as long as a news cycle. The hurry to name candidates is quite inexplicable. There are still six weeks left for nominations; and 10 for the actual poll. This is the time to ponder; judgment can come later.

Long used to filling Rashtrapati Bhavan by selection, political parties seem a trifle bemused by the prospect of a genuine election. Congress is merely repeating what it did in 2007: Throwing up names to check which will float, which will be punctured by pellets, and which will sink under their own deadweight. In 2007 Pranab Mukherjee was on the first Congress list. Mrs Sonia Gandhi sabotaged Mukherjee only after he shifted from probable to possible, after endorsement from the Left. She then pulled out Mrs Pratibha Patil from well-deserved anonymity, aware that a short deadline left little opportunity for debate. The early Congress bird does not necessarily get the worm. 2012 is different for at least two reasons. After five years of Mrs Patil, Indians want someone with dignity, calibre and honesty as their President. Another sleight-of-the-hand choice might, just conceivably, muster up numbers in the electoral college, but will be punished by public opinion.

In 2007, discussions were about candidates, not victory. Today, Congress is racked with uncertainty because it heads a coalition that is invulnerable on paper and vulnerable in practice. Numbers do not bring stability; governance does. upa 1 had focus and cogency, as well as allies who knew the value of questions. That partnership of the willing has degenerated into an alliance of the haphazard. Congress has destabilised itself; and this infection has spread to allies. If the axis of a coalition becomes unsteady, the rim cannot hold. Defeat in UP or Punjab or Delhi is only a symptom; the wasting disease is shrinking credibility.

Each week something happens, minor or major, to jolt a party already in grip of ceaseless tremors. Examine the catalogue of the past seven days. A former Maharashtra chief minister is indicted in high-rise corruption. A former national spokesman of the party is trapped in low-rise shenanigans. A court hears allegations of corruption against the Union home minister. Revolt begins to unhinge the most successful Congress CM, in Assam. Rumour gives the Congress CM in Andhra only a few more weeks in office. A frightened Government tries to frighten media with a private member’s “Print and Electronic Media Standards
and Regulations Bill, 2012”. It seeks to legitimise censorship and authoritarian coercion through familiar means, like an annual licence renewal and punitive fines for “unverified and dubious material”, a phrase whose elasticity could bankrupt most media companies through legal fees. Government, incidentally, never has a problem with lawyers’ fees: It pays them with your money. The author of this proposed legislation is Meenakshi Natrajan, whose fame rests on her
proximity to Rahul Gandhi. Congress spokesmen deny Rahul Gandhi’s role; but you could hardly expect them to confirm it.

Curiously, neither the Government nor the Opposition has a majority in this Lok Sabha. The Opposition is in disarray since the largest Opposition party, bjp, has not successfully negotiated the terms of reference for a viable alternative. The Government is not strong enough to govern; the Opposition is not strong enough to displace it. Government wafts along from crisis to crisis on this anomaly. The situation is reminiscent of 1969. Exploiting uncertainty with great skill, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi defied her own party and put up V.V. Giri against the official Congress nominee Sanjeeva Reddy. Presidential campaigns are conducted in silence. When 1969’s deals were done, every traditional line between left, right and centre had blurred. No one was certain which way the vote would go. Mrs Gandhi triumphed thanks to the Akali Dal and the second preference votes of a west UP leader, Chaudhary Charan Singh. In six years, the Akalis as well as Charan Singh were in Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency jails; in 1977, they routed Congress and made Sanjeeva Reddy President.

In 1969 Mrs Gandhi prepared two speeches on counting day. One of them was meant for defeat, in which case she would have resigned. Selection is tick-tac-toe. An election is a game with formidable stakes.

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