Jul 26, 2008

Columnists - Barkha Dutt

Now that the political orchestra has hit a noisy but compelling crescendo, and the high notes are beginning to give way to well-rehearsed and oft-sung songs, it’s time to step back and ask ourselves which tune was humming in our head when we left the hall.
I have to confess to some very mixed feelings. The obvious disgust and distaste at the ugly underbelly of what makes Indian politics work was tempered by some real delight in the quality of the parliamentary debate. Yes, this was a drama without any major heroes. Yet, it had some fascinating twists and turns, a few riveting performances and enough reason for those in the supporting cast to be admired and applauded. (Omar Abdullah would get my vote for the Oscar.)
The end of this week may have meant six more months for the UPA in government. But don’t treat this as closure. Instead, what we witnessed was a preview of the uncertainties that will define the general elections in 2009. If you thought this was a cliffhanger, wait till April.
Now that Singh has been anointed King again, there is already frenzied speculation in Congress circles over whether the PM has bought himself another bash at the job, were it the UPA’s for the taking. Quite apart from the fact that Manmohan Singh would have always been the candidate for the top job (Rahul Gandhi is still one election away), the PM must ask himself whether the new tag of being ‘political’ is one he considers a compliment or a curse. There is no doubt that a man once written off as na├»ve and apolitical even by his own party has emerged to be a canny and smart political risk-taker.
The BJP will find it impossible to ever snidely describe him again as India’s “weakest Prime Minister”, images of a once-diffident man waving the victory sign at eager camera crews combined with a hard-hitting and unusually aggressive reply to both Advani and Karat completed the transformation of Manmohan Singh from technocrat to neta. His party colleagues who were once so quick to undermine him are now nervous and deferential about his influence. And those of us who have always admired his integrity are glad that good men can also survive to tell the tale.
But there’s a catch. Once upon a time, an apolitical PM could have stood apart from and above the dirt and din of politics. Congress managers could have been blamed for the amoral machinations of the party and most of us would have bought it. But in his new avatar, as politician, Manmohan Singh may find it difficult to stand at one arm’s length from the grime of electoral survival. When Shibu Soren returns to the Cabinet, the PM can’t disassociate himself from a decision he once so bitterly opposed. And if it turns out that the BJP MPs who brandished bundles of cash in Parliament were telling the truth about being bribed, the PM’s squeaky clean image could take a knock as well. That, sadly, is the flip side of wielding political influence; is the ‘King’ now wearing a crown of thorns?
L.K. Advani, the man whom the BJP believes will be ensconced in the throne of power by next year has some reason to be unsettled right now. It was a move of Machiavellian brilliance to turn Parliament into the set of ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ just 40 minutes before the vote was scheduled. The Congress may question the morality of the timing. But since the UPA has just negotiated ten abstentions — obviously at a price, whether political or monetary — it should know that everything is fair in politics and war.
Those who suggest that the BJP MPs, who are alleging bribery, should have first gone and knocked on the door of some hapless sub-inspector are being ludicrous. It was entirely legitimate of the Opposition to use the issue of cash-for-votes to stall Parliament. And there are serious implications for the credibility of the trust vote if any of these charges turn out to be true. But, when the news channel in possession of the sting-operation tapes opted not to telecast the footage, on the plea that the investigations were still “incomplete”, the BJP’s case was automatically weakened. Add to that the seven defections, and you have a very angry Leader of Opposition whose war plan was poorly executed.
And then, most importantly, there is Mayawati. The well-heeled elite of urban India may laugh (half fearfully) at her aspirations to be Prime Minister but the Congress and the BJP know that she is the one who will keep them awake at night. The BSP may have got only 2.6 per cent and 7 per cent of the vote in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh last year, but it split the traditional Congress vote and hurt it in at least 14 seats in Gujarat alone. In Delhi, the BSP vote share cost the Congress the municipal elections. In the Lok Sabha elections of 2004, Mayawati won a little over 5 per cent of the national vote. If she manages to double this in 2009, she can preside over a kitty of 50 seats across India and happily topple the Congress applecart. Yes, a strategic tie-up with the NDA is not ruled out. But then she would want to be PM, wouldn’t she? The BJP has bravely brushed away the possibility of this as “hypothetical”. But it is, in fact, more real than anyone cares to admit.
So, this week of high drama is really only the beginning. The boiling cauldron of Indian politics may have been brought to a low simmer for now. But the fire is still on, and as the churning contradictions cook in their own steam, you never know what may finally make its way to your table.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

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