Saturday, July 5, 2008

CONGRESS: FROM SICKLE TO CYCLE


Look at the irony. Perhaps the only thing about the UPA government that will be remembered and that it can proudly claim as an achievement in the five years that it has been in power is the only decision it has taken, after much dithering, ignoring the uncompromising ideological opposition of the commies.

The most unnatural marriage of the mongoose and the snake is, finally, over. Unfortunately for the country it has come four years too late. Four years is a long time for a nation to lose to the blackmail of an ideological snake hell bent on paralysing a government with the threat of venom strong enough to kill it. The mongoose was never going to be comfortable sleeping with its arch enemy, but it still kept faking orgasms, even though it suffered humiliation upon humiliation. For what? For hanging on to power, no matter what it cost the nation.

Now that the marriage between the Congress and the commies is over bar the formalities, the Congress will get some time to sit back and objectively assess that this was a marriage of losses only. Nothing good came of it at all, either for the Congress or, and that is of greater concern to ordinary Indians, to the country. The dream economic team of Dr Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram and Montek Singh Ahluwalia remained just that: dream team. It kept dreaming but was not allowed to push through a single worthwhile reform thanks to the commies who are still stuck in the era of the Mao and Stalin.

Who suffered? Not the commies, who were clever enough to shirk responsibility by not joining the government while retaining in full the power to dictate what they wanted. It was the Congress that paid the price, getting routed in election after election in various states across the country. Yet, no one in the party had the guts to call the marriage off, because that meant losing power.

Thanks to a determined Prime Minister who refused to give in to commie blackmail and staked his prestige to push through the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, the Congress has been forced to bite the bullet and put the commies in their place on the unwanted extremities of India’s political landscape, the only place they have to be in if India has to decisively move forward with the speed that is required for it to catch up with China. Simultaneously, to ensure that the heady brew of power is not lost for even a day, the party has gone in for what till a few days back seemed to be a most unlikely political realignment.

After throwing away the commie sickle, Sonia Gandhi has been forced to step off her stately limousine and hitch a ride on Mulayam Singh Yadav’s lowly cycle (the election symbol of the SP). For years, Mulayam Singh and his deputy Amar Singh, were political, even social, untouchables for the Congress. That made the commies doubly powerful and rendered the government totally impotent. After four torturous years with the Left, it is not just the Prime Minister’s position on the Nuclear Deal that is responsible for getting Mulayam and Sonia to ride a cycle together.

The Congress has realised that the magic that the party had expected with the entry of Rahul Gandhi into active politics has actually turned out to be some sort of a nightmare. The Prime Minister in waiting of the Congress has simply failed to enthuse voters, particularly the youth, anywhere in the country, and the party has faced an unbroken string of electoral defeats in the last couple of years. The situation in UP, the home turf of the Nehru-Gandhi family, is actually desperate.

With only about an 8 per cent share of the votes in UP, and no new voters being attracted to the party, the Congress has absolutely no hope of bettering its performance in the ensuing Lok Sabha elections. Mayawati has taken away all dalit votes in UP, and is in the process of doing so in other states too. An alliance with her, as I had warned even last year, means death. Mulayam’s SP, on the other hand, has taken away most of the Muslim votes, leaving the Congress with the votes of only the old and dying who will vote for the party no matter what, just as they have been doing since perhaps the first elections in Independent India.

Unlike Mayawati, Mulayam Yadav is, and will remain, a regional strongman confined mostly to UP. He does not threaten the Congress in other states. So, a pre-poll alliance with him in UP might prove to be beneficial to the Congress. At any rate, it will not harm the party like a tie-up with Mayawati will. That seems to be broadly the logic driving the Congress desperately into the arms of its latest honeymoon partner.

Mulayam Yadav, humbled by Mayawati in the last elections, can more than do with even the few additional votes that an alliance with the Congress might bring, helping him to emerge with more than the 39 MPs that he has now. Who knows, with the way the Congress is losing ground everywhere, that might just get him to the PM’s chair, with the Congress supporting him. That possibility will be galling to the Congress, and that may be one reason why it had been avoiding getting into bed with the SP till now.

The two national parties, Congress and BJP, have both lost considerable ground in India’s largest state. Mayawati and Mulayam have, between them, taken away their voters. And the situation is not likely to be any different within the next six months. The challenge before both of them, therefore, is how to reclaim their lost space. That is going to take a lot of hard work and a much better people-connect, along with the usual and overblown caste combos.

In UP at least, the Congress and the BJP have to realise that they are no longer fighting each other, and that trying to do that there in the next elections is only going to be mutually destructive. They both have to get their guns out for Mayawati and Mulayam if they want to have any chance of getting back into centre space. The Congress is, unfortunately, so weak that it has seems to have decided that it needs to be on life support, and for that it has chosen the lesser of the two evils, the ‘liquid oxygen’ of the old Ajit joke: the liquid will not let it live and the oxygen will not let it die. If the BJP similarly ties up with Mayawati, it will find itself with only liquid and no oxygen!

Notwithstanding what happens after the next elections, one thing is clear: the Congress has taken far too long to dump the sickle for the cycle. Had the commies been put in place much earlier, this government would have had a lot more to claim credit for besides the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. When the focus is on petty politics as a tool for pursuing political gamesmanship and not on healthy politics as a tool for delivering better governance, such blunders will continue to be made at great cost to the nation.