Jul 19, 2008

Columnists - Barkha Dutt

Pawns to the Game

Today, it’s baptising an airport; tomorrow it could be giving birth to an entire new state. How far is the UPA willing to travel to remain standing in exactly the same place?
In these volatile months that saw the nuclear deal devouring the political mindshare, many of us in the media publicly urged Manmohan Singh to stand firm. And when a man who describes himself as “an accidental politician” played a remarkably smart hand of cards — asserting his authority over recalcitrant ministers and compelling his party to put its full weight behind him — we silently applauded the fact that a technocrat Prime Minister had not just survived a swim in the political pool of sharks, but he had also emerged much stronger.
But watching the brazen bartering of MPs in the flea market that is Indian politics, I can’t help but wonder how the PM, a man of unimpeachable personal integrity, justifies the naked commerce that is driving the survival of his government. Yes, sure, middle-class hand-wringing over ‘how dirty politics is’ is not just boringly banal; it is also an infuriatingly textbook definition of public morality and an unreal understanding of what makes India go round.
So when the PM personally escorts Amar Singh to the High Table at a UPA anniversary dinner, we see it as an entirely legitimate political peace move. When former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is chosen to be a Muslim mascot for the nuclear deal, we may feel cynical, but we get the logic of using a missile scientist to mitigate ‘mullah disquiet’. And when the Samajwadi Party and the Congress stitch up a seat-sharing alliance for Uttar Pradesh, we aren’t hung up on their tortured history; we understand that it is smart politics. We are also willing to forgive a last-minute rechristening of the Lucknow airport as an innocuous price to pay, to keep a would-be ally happy.
But even our willing suspension of value judgement has to operate within some basic boundaries. And when you ask us to accept your courtship of a man previously dropped from the Union Cabinet on charges of murder, you are testing our tolerance. It’s even more ironic when you remember that it was Manmohan Singh who had fiercely resisted taking Shibu Soren back as Coal Minister, even as party strategists pressured him to do so.
Nothing exemplifies the political hypocrisy of this past week more than the strange case of Shibu Soren and his band of MPs. There is serious speculation that — by the time this makes it to print — Soren would have been sworn in as minister for the third time in this very Cabinet. And if it doesn’t happen before the trust vote, it’s only a matter of time before the man famous for being on-the-run in a murder case becomes either Chief Minister or Cabinet minister.
But if the UPA needs to be mortified (to put it mildly), the self-righteousness of the Right and the Left is just so much humbug as well. The BJP’s Prime Minister-in-waiting is a man of history and, like Manmohan Singh, has impeccable personal credentials. But if L.K. Advani were to rummage through his own Parliament archives, he may stumble upon inconsistencies that make his party’s present line of attack somewhat untenable.
In November 2006, Parliament was crippled by anger and protests by the Oppo-sition. Soren had just been found guilty of murder and the BJP was demanding to know why the PM had brought him back into the Cabinet to begin with. As Leader of the Opposition, Advani targeted Manmohan Singh directly, saying, “We had heard of criminalisation of politics, but we are now seeing the criminalisation of the Council of Ministers.” His argument was entirely valid. Except that today, his party is in not-so-covert talks with the same criminal troopers. And there is grand and excited chatter about a ‘regime change’ in Jharkhand in exchange for Soren’s crossing over to the NDA.
And what about the Left parties? Where was the Left when the controversy first imploded? These days, the Left is drawing (entirely legitimate) parallels between P.V. Narasimha Rao bribing JMM MPs to survive in 1993 and the UPA soliciting their help in 2008. But back in 2006, in the name of ‘secularism’, the Left did not permit the BJP to make an issue of Soren’s criminal record. During the same Parliament debate, the CPI’s Gurudas Dasupta had hit back at Advani’s speech on Soren with a sweeping, rhetorical reply. “The devil,” he had said, “should not quote the scripture.” Today, his party and the so-called ‘devils’ have found common political cause.
Personally, I think the furore over the Left and the BJP voting on the same side is actually an entirely contrived controversy. What sort of parliamentary democracy are we if parties have to be straitjacketed by textbook positions into ideological corners they can never escape from? One of the healthier by-products of the current political crisis is, in fact, the end of ‘secularism’ as the ultimate totem of the moral high ground. Not because I don’t believe fervently in the need for a secular society; but because it had got reduced to a default point of division within Parliament allowing for no genuine or honest debate. But when the future of Parliament is all set to be determined by which party manages to bribe five MPs from Jharkhand, high-sounding words like ‘propriety’, ‘deceit’ and ‘morality’ are hollow and meaningless, no matter which side is spouting them.
And while the shift from Lal Salaam to Dalal Salaam makes for a great SMS joke and an even better political slogan, it applies equally to all our Parliamentarians. In this season of ugly power-brokering, show me a party that doesn’t have a middleman, and I will show you my vote.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

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