Thursday, January 24, 2013

Wanted: A magic wand from Jaipur

Byline for 20 January 2013

Wanted: A magic wand from Jaipur

M.J. Akbar

Ambition is a perfectly legitimate gene within the political DNA. Without ambition it would be almost impossible for anyone except a saint to suffer the dross, ennui and heartless envy of foes and friends that consume so much of a politician’s time. The glamour of attention and the pleasures of power are a mere ten per cent of this business. But ambition has its conditions. There is a good reason why the world frowns on naked ambition. It looks ugly. Ambition always needs a tailor who is a master of masks.
One of the more interesting developments of the last three months has been a flurry of media reports promoting Finance Minister P. Chidambaram as a future Prime Minister; and they meant the near future, not a distant one. Even as sage an international magazine as the Economist felt the urge to push this candidature. This reflected clear disappointment in Dr Manmohan Singh’s second term; many of Chidambaram’s cheerleaders were flag-wavers of more liberalisation in economic reform and thought that Dr Singh had lost the will to push this agenda significantly forward.

But there was also a growing feeling that Rahul Gandhi, the nominated heir, had not risen to the occasion offered by history. His inability to articulate policy or lead debate seemed to be the only explanation for absence from discourse. Confidence in Chidambaram was also an implicit vote of no-confidence in Rahul. Rahul Gandhi did not help his cause by disappearing from public view, apparently on a long holiday, while the iconic youth movement against rape and lawlessness filled Delhi’s streets.
There is no capital in the world that excels Delhi in the art of gossipy analysis. Self-appointed pundits began to whisper about an emerging formula: Rahul Gandhi would make Chidambaram his Manmohan Singh. He would emulate his mother, stay to the side of a Prime Minister as the political power and last word, but leave the ardour and responsibility of day-to-day executive management to Chidambaram. As options go this certainly seemed to have its merits.

The “chintan shivir”, or think-tank conference, in Jaipur should kill such entertaining chatter. The first and lasting message of this event is that while the Congress may have much to think about as it heads towards another election hour, there is one subject now closed for discussion. Rahul Gandhi will lead the party in the next campaign, and thereby claim the prime ministership if the electorate makes this a possibility. Rahul Gandhi dominated the poster space at the gathering, and all the rustle directed at media indicated that there was nothing to discuss.
The message came from the very top. Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s political adviser Ahmed Patel does not give interviews; and in any case does nothing without clearance from Mrs Gandhi. In a rare interview Patel made it clear that the future of Congress belonged to Rahul Gandhi.
It is possible that such clarity broke a heart or two in the upper echelons of Congress; but it will reassure the majority of the party. The Congress did not become a family organisation only because the family wanted this. The party has also forgotten, willingly, internal democracy. Nor are there any smoke-filled rooms where a caucus can ponder choices. Congress leaders dismiss non-family suggestions with contempt. Their argument is that family is the only factor which keeps Congress united. They shudder at the disarray below during Narasimha Rao’s time at the top.

The timing of the Jaipur convention invites other questions. Is the Congress preparing for a 2013 general election, possibly along with elections to those states where they are due this autumn-winter? There is no point wasting momentum in the long calm before a storm; you might lose the sheen by the time the real test begins. Rahul Gandhi has so far been packaged for short bursts interspersed by fallow spells during which he lowers his public presence, or even disappears. Perhaps that is a demand of his personality. The demands of power do not permit such luxury, but that is something that Rahul Gandhi will have to deal with after the general elections.
Mrs Gandhi has confirmed that her son will be the pivot of the next campaign by asking Congress to concentrate on the young and the middle class. These are the electoral constituencies which are most likely to be amenable to Rahul Gandhi at this juncture of his career. If Rahul Gandhi cannot get their vote, then the story is over before it has begun. But this is also the vote that has drifted away, thanks to stalled economic growth, rising prices, corrosive corruption and the havoc perpetrated by criminals and rapists in Delhi. The Congress hopes that Rahul Gandhi will somehow manage to deflate the overwhelming anger. That will however require a magic wand. Are any such wands left in the Congress kit box?

We will know in about six months. Till then, enjoy your chatter about politics.

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