Saturday, September 29, 2012


 M.J. Akbar

It all began with Mamata Banerjee. With a single tug she set in motion
a series of reactions that opened up contradictions, fears, suspicions
and ambition that can only be resolved by another General Election.
There has been insufficient acknowledgement of her formative role
because the middle class, and its playground, the media, dismiss her
as a deviant when her core characteristic is independence. She knows a
basic rule of public life. The political clock is not set by the news
cycle. A sensible politician factors in the news story but worries
only about impact, which is an aggregation of interlinked facts that
slowly seep into the subconscious. A General Election is determined by
what becomes embedded in perception, not an evening’s flash. That
issue is corruption. Mamata Banerjee took command of vanguard space in
Opposition ranks when she decided that association with a tarred
Congress had become counterproductive. She said publicly what other
Congress allies are beginning to admit privately. Mamata is not
reticent: Her body language is often more descriptive than her
sentence. She is a high-voltage battery, ever ready. She did not bring
down the Government by withdrawing support, but she punctured its
confidence and set politics on the path to elections. Four days after
Mamata’s formal departure, Congress President Mrs Sonia Gandhi said
that the upa Government was stable. Within hours her ally in the west,
Sharad Pawar’s ncp, was destabilising the most important upa coalition
after Delhi, Maharashtra. A local Congress-ncp conflict that had
remained dormant for years erupted because the environment was no
longer in Congress control. Ambitions that have learnt to wait will
not remain quiet if opportunity becomes visible. On the same day, the
steadfast Congress friend in Tamil Nadu, dmk, told Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh through the latter’s emissary that it was not
interested in proposing any new names for inclusion in the proposed
Cabinet reshuffle. The dmk’s message was simple: The days of telling
us what to do are over; if you don’t listen to us, we have other
options. Within a week of Mamata’s move, the principal alliances of
the Congress were in disarray. The English language offers a
descriptive phrase: Coming apart at the seams. The upa was coming
apart at the beams that have held it up. The only chap hanging on
loyally to Congress is Lalu Prasad Yadav, and they didn’t even make
him a Cabinet minister in 2009. Everyone can see the writing on the
television screen, including Congress. When the drums of war rumble,
there is confrontation ahead. The thunder of electoral battle first
rolls out in advertising. Government media is already experiencing a
traffic jam of slightly over-cooked songs, reheated from 2009, which
seek to energise targeted Congress demographic segments: Muslims,
women and the more generalised rubric of the poor. On a parallel line,
Congress is trying to revive its “nuclear deal constituency” in the
urban middle class with a slew of economic reforms and decisions, some
packaged in misleading frames, to push a stagnant economy as well as
divert mass attention away from corrosive subjects like the coal scam.
Together, this is a pitch for Congress, not upa. upa has imploded, and
the Congress is trying to reset its electoral compass. For the formal
Opposition, it no longer matters much how long this Government lasts,
because if you cannot govern, then the longer you last, the worse it
is for your prospects. Congress needs time to change the discourse,
and would like to wait till the last minute. But the party is old
enough to understand that it cannot function with an uncertain
majority, or every crisis like the Ajit Pawar insurrection will
compound an image of corruption bracketed with political helplessness,
if not ineptitude. Its core contradiction has not changed with
circumstances; its allies occupy space once held by the party, which
the party would like to recover.  The departure of Mamata Banerjee
from upa cleans up  one such paradox, but even if the immediate cost
is high the party can always hope for reward when Mamata’s support
begins to deflate. But its relationship with ncp has fractured, and
sarcasm has entered the dmk refrain. A conventional belief is that bjp
lost in 2004 because its “India Shining” campaign finessed the plight
of the poor, and the poor taught bjp that they were still masters on
voting day. But the bjp lost that crucial battle long before polling,
when, in a display of hubris, they spurned their traditional allies—Om
Prakash Chautala in Haryana, Shibu Soren in Jharkhand and agp in
Assam. When the polity is as fractured as ours is, little drops make
the eventual ocean. Congress has lost one principal ally, and lamed
two others already. Those who are supportive in the survival game,
like Mulayam Singh Yadav or Mayawati, will be ferociously antagonistic
at the polls. If either the Congress or bjp wants to conquer in
General Elections tomorrow, they must stoop today.

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