There comes a time in the life of every government when the media decide that it has blundered so fatally that a complete recovery is now impossible. In such phases — and every single political party has encountered them — editorials become political obituaries that declare the end. An end that may not be not immediate, but is certainly seen as imminent.
Something like that has happened to the UPA government over the last month. It is tempting to argue that the turning point came in the very first session of the HT Summit when the Prime Minister left his audience stunned by suddenly declaring that he would live with the collapse of the nuclear deal because his was not a “one-issue government”.
Since then — ‘hammered’, ‘lame-duck’, ‘weak’ — these are the adjectives that have defined much of the English media’s response to the near-abortion of the nuclear deal. No Prime Minister, especially someone as decent, sensitive and self-effacing as Manmohan Singh, could have enjoyed waking up to such headlines, day after day. Yet, the PM’s colleagues within the ruling coalition aren’t overly worried; if anything, they are entirely dismissive about what “a bunch of angrezi editorialwallahs” have to say. The technicalities of the deal, they argue, are so esoteric and inaccessible, that voting India couldn’t care less. If anything — they whisper to you conspiratorially —cosying up to a regime that is at war with much of the Islamic world, could potentially alienate the Muslim electorate. And the idea of nuclear power, they will tell you, is so academic that no voter will see it as a bijli, sadak, pani issue (though that’s exactly how the government should have been hard-selling it to the people, instead of allowing it to remain confined within the debating clubs of the foreign policy circuit). <b1>
The UPA politicos are not off-mark. It’s not likely that if the deal gets hastily buried it will be reincarnated as an election slogan. And it’s also much too facile, over-simplistic and self-important to declare death-by-media.
But here’s what they have got wrong. Middle-class India’s disillusionment isn’t so much about the nuclear deal in itself. It’s a response to the sense of chaos and absence of political control within the coalition. We are irritated and frustrated that for six months now there has been a virtual paralysis over a single issue that the Congress neither has the resolve to defend nor the will to surrender on.
We can accept what the PM said this week — that a fractured mandate inevitably slows down decision-making. But, surely, there is a difference between sophisticated negotiation and manoeuvring and incoherent and inconsistent political management. Quite simply, the Congress has alternated between shrill (and at times, needless) aggression and craven and inexplicable compromise, leaving most people bewildered about where the party really stands.
Once the nuclear deal had entered the crisis phase, it was clear to most Delhi insiders that only one of three outcomes was possible. The Left could be persuaded, the deal could be abandoned or the deal could be passed and the government would have fallen. The Prime Minister’s now-famous interview to The Telegraph, in which he effectively dared the Left to do its worst suggested that the government had chosen the third option. Many of us, who are admirers of Manmohan Singh’s intrinsic integrity but are sometimes frustrated by his lack of aggression, actually applauded the move. It may well have smacked of political naiveté, but the image of the Prime Minister as a high-minded Captain who would rather go down with the ship than lose sight of the destination and swim to the safety of the shore, was a compelling one. Besides, enough Indians were rather impatient themselves with the ideological intolerance of the Marxists when it came to ‘America’. We may not have fully understood the nuances of the deal, but the more the communists opposed it, the more some of us leaned in its favour. And above all, we trusted the PM to act in India’s interests. We can debate and disagree over whether the deal was worth surrendering the government for, but there is no question that the day The Telegraph interview was published, the government had (we thought, knowingly) chosen to put its life on the line.
The turnaround then — when it came at the HT summit — was startling. If you are not ready to risk an election — as you had earlier projected — then did you really need to challenge your allies with an emotional dare? It wasn’t just the Prime Minister’s interview. Four days before the Congress climb-down, Sonia Gandhi made an ill-advised speech in Haryana in which she dubbed anyone who opposed the deal as “an enemy of progress”. Perhaps, as the party later clarified, she did mean the BJP whose hypocritical grandstanding on the deal has done it no credit. But, given the timing of the speech and the crisis within the coalition, should the media and the Marxists be blamed for believing she actually meant them? The Congress President spoke sensibly about the “dharma of coalition” at the HT summit, but it seemed like the party was raising a white flag only because the war-cry had failed. In other words, the peace move came so late that it appeared to be a consequence of losing the battle.
The consequence of this poorly negotiated jostling with the Left is that the Congress has given the impression that it is no longer in control of the government, or of India’s future. It may well be, as Congress leaders claim, that the electorate will not care about the nuclear deal and that the middle-class outrage will subside. But will the Left ever back down now that it has tasted blood? It’s already cocked a snook at the Congress with Prakash Karat driving down to the house of the party’s pet peeve, Amar Singh, apparently to create a consensus among the non-BJP, non-Congress parties for a parliamentary debate. Won’t the allies — who now conveniently give interviews on how they always opposed the deal, forgetting that they were part of the Cabinet that approved it — ever treat the PM’s word as final? It’s all quite ironic, given that every opinion poll (such as they are worth) showed a gain in seats for the Congress if there were elections today.
The nuclear deal may or may not go through — there are still those within government who believe that it hasn’t quite died prematurely. But for the Congress, the question today is how much of this crisis was self-inflicted. And what does it say to an ambitious and aspiring India that seeks coherence from its political leaders?
Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7