It was Shakespeare's soothsayer who first immortalised the warning against impending political upheaval. "Beware the Ides of March," he told Julius Caesar, prophesying the day of his violent death at the hands of a group of Roman senators. The otherwise distinctly literary Kalaignar may or may not have consulted his copy of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, so one can only call it an odd coincidence that it was on the exact same day in March (the 15th) that the DMK leader first announced the "pointlessness" of remaining with the UPA. The season of political termination had announced its arrival.
But unlike the abrupt and relatively painless end delivered by an assassination, this was to be slow death. Like a gravely ill patient forced to confront her own diminishing strength, her mortality both a curse and deliverance, the UPA has been left stranded in the nether world that lies between life and death. Its end is imminent and its present is paralysed. In other words, it now needs the definitive mercy of euthanasia, and not the tantalising promise of closure from allies who would be very happy to dance on its grave just as soon as they have a fix on what the swansong should be.
In the meantime, the Darwinian games for political survival have been declared open. Here stealth is strategy and fitness levels are an elaborate mindsport. Nothing, then, is as it seems. Nitish Kumar won't say a yes to Narendra Modi as the NDA's prime ministerial candidate, but won't settle for pre-election ambiguity either. His insistence that the BJP declare a name is clearly in anticipation of a rupture that has already become inevitable. Mulayam Singh Yadav's contradictory statements that alternate between support and criticism combined with his unlikely praise for LK Advani - while putting down his own son - are tactical wedges driven between the various factions of the Sangh parivar. As the main charioteer of the Ayodhya movement, Advani was till recently a political untouchable for Mulayam's party; today the UP stalwart's praise for him is designed to counter the rise of Modi and add chaos to the general confusion. Further, the same Bengal chief minister who stalled the Teesta water-sharing accord suddenly sounded a platitudinous note on how the foreign policy of a country must always be shaped by the Centre. Now her party has demanded the resignation of the Manmohan Singh government. Meanwhile the cash-strapped government is suddenly willing to open its coffers for special packages to Bihar and Bengal, while expressing flustered dismay at CBI raids it says it didn't order on MK Stalin. Is there a dangerous ad-hocism in the air or is there a method to anyone's madness? Probably neither or a bit of both; red-herrings in election season are designed to test waters, confound the opponent and camouflage actual battle-plans.
So, when the PM cryptically says that Mulayam may withdraw, but the UPA can still survive, he is visualising a Parliament floor test which forces players to declare their hand. If you speak only mathematically, the Congress may well have calculated that there are still enough parties who aren't ready for earlier elections. It's the reason no one has yet thrust a no-confidence motion on the government. Politicians of all parties will tell you privately that given the costs of campaigning and the trauma of possible defeat, no MP ever wants to give up a single day of power. That conspiracy of covert consensus may be what has kept the UPA from falling over a precipice; one that it precariously continues to stare down.
But speaking politically, the Congress must ask itself why it wants to continue to be this straggling entity that can now neither administrate effectively nor govern with any self-respect intact. Yes, the party's political managers, led by a shrewd and effective parliamentary affairs minister in Kamal Nath may yet manage to negotiate key legislations. But when passing any major Bill becomes the equivalent of fighting a forest fire, why not accept that in this situation, there can be no magical rise from the ashes?
The real crisis for the Congress is stagnancy. Its challenge now is not just to enthuse voters; but also its own cadres. Complex electoral arithmetic means that neither national party - the BJP or the Congress - is likely to get more than between 120-140 seats. But whether Narendra Modi is eventually the BJP's prime ministerial face or not (my wager is that no candidate will be announced), he has succeeded in creating an energy among the party workers. By contrast, the momentum that could have been built on after Rahul Gandhi's Jaipur speech has quickly dissipated into inertia because of the complacent vagueness that continues to vex the party's leadership questions. Forget voters, even Congress workers have a right to know who they should draw direction from. So far, they have no idea.
The UPA may well have a scheme up its sleeve to keep itself in power for a few more months. The question is, should it? Limping along till 2014, either hobbling its way through the law-making process or plotting its way through the next crisis is in fact poor politics not just for the Congress, but for the country. Whether Mulayam Singh Yadav blinks or not and whether Nitish Kumar can yet offer salvation should be immaterial. The environment is politically toxic; the body politic needs fresh blood. For as Shakespeare would remind the government, "The fault, dear Brutus is not our stars, But in ourselves."
A November election may not yet be absolutely inevitable, but it's certainly desirable.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV and currently a Visiting Fellow at Brown University's India Initiative
The views expressed by the author are personal