A bus ride to interesting times
It’s the old London bus principle. Nothing happens for a long time, then suddenly three turn up at the same time. No decision is made by government for more than four years, and then a dozen come along, tripping one another on their way towards public discourse. You have to wonder why.
Congress has developed an odd habit since 2009: it indicates its mind before it has made up its mind. Telangana was comatose on a back-burner when, quite out of the blue, Home Minister P. Chidambaram announced a solution was imminent. When passions advanced, government retreated. Last year Sushil Shinde switched on a green light, and turned it to amber in January this year. Now Digvijay Singh, general secretary in charge of party secrets, has told us a final solution is in plain sight. We should believe him. A general election is also in plain sight.
If A.K. Antony is appointed General Manager, Repairs and Reconsideration, can elections be far away? First priority: send morality on holiday, and who better to do that than the most moral man in Cabinet. Jharkhand Mukti Morcha is the property of a family which can, with some justification, be described as corrupt. Not only do they take money, they also get caught, which is silly in our liberal corruption environment. But for ten seats in the state, all sins are forgiven. Joining Congress is a baptism; it bathes the sinner with salvation. JMM was corrupt and communal as long as it was scratching for power in the company of BJP. Perhaps this is good politics. We shall know only after voters have returned a verdict.
Antony has quickly extended a Congress hand again to DMK in Tamil Nadu, another state where it cannot survive without an ally. The DMK is in less of a hurry, and may not do so before election dates are announced. Congress is the only party that knows when, but if it is getting antsy, there has to be a reason.
But hurry is dangerous in politics. You can trip up if you have not planned how to negotiate the various traps that always lie on a plotted route. You hold one end of a map up, beaming at cameras, and the other end collapses. Has this happened with the CBI’s charge-sheet in the Ishrat Jahan case, probably the final effort to derail Narendra Modi after more than a decade in which every twist of the legal process has been exhausted?
CBI proclaimed Ishrat Jahan innocent, but admitted that the three men shot alongside her by Gujarat police were terrorists. Perhaps CBI and government thought that everyone who mattered, including media, would treat this as the final word. Then, quite unexpectedly, things began to go a bit wrong. The Intelligence Bureau, which is headed by Syed Asif Ibrahim, an officer with a fine reputation, refused to kowtow. A tussle broke out between IB and CBI over Ishrat Jahan. Facts emerged, which had so far been kept out of public purview: principally, that David Headley, convicted for his role in the organisation of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, had named Ishrat during his interrogation by the premier Indian investigation agency, NIA. Instead of leading an offensive, the government might be forced to clean up its own mess.
Hurry has affected the food security decision as well. This is definitely going to be the main plank of the Congress re-election campaign. Remarkably, however, the most vociferous opposition to this decision has come from parties that have always the pro-poor banner: the left. Prakash Karat, speaking for Communists, Mulayam Singh Yadav, speaking for himself, and Dinesh Trivedi, on behalf of Mamata Banerjee, dismissed the decision as nothing but an election gimmick. There is certainly no money in the current resource base of UPA government to implement this expensive programme. But Congress is more interested in making this the central promise of its next manifesto, than implementation. If it wanted implementation, it would have issued the ordinance in the first six weeks of UPA2, not in the last six.
Are we then looking at a November general election?
Congress has not taken a final decision, but it is clearing the way towards that possibility. It does not want to be subverted by events that may not be fully in its control, including the behaviour of the extended family that keeps UPA in power without much reward in return. Its haste is out of necessity, rather than will.
Complicated problems like Telangana however do not promise easy dividends, even if you take a decision. Nor will all the Band-Aid eliminate memory of corruption, end inflation, stop the rupee implosion, or reverse the sag in the economy. The only prediction that can safely be made is that the next general election, whenever it is held, will be the most interesting since 2004. Hop on to the bus in any case; the ride will be bumpy but exhilarating.