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Bonfire of Morality

Now that Prime Minister is seen as a manically aggressive and arrogantly inaccessible politician, he can no longer distance himself from the deals struck in his name or the bribes paid to save his office, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jul 27, 2008 01:36 IST
Vir Sanghvi

It started out as a vote to justify a moral stand. It ended up as the bonfire of parliamentary political morality. How long will it be before Indians can live down the spectacle of MPs brandishing wads of cash on the floor of the Lok Sabha? Those pictures, beamed all over the globe, have shamed the world’s largest democracy.

The only thing that can be said with certainty after the confidence vote is this: nobody really gained from it — certainly not India itself.

The Congress: At one level, the Congress can treat the result of the vote as a victory. It stood up to Prakash Karat’s blackmail. It fought for a deal that is in the national interest. And it defied expectations by remaining in office.

But at a deeper level, I’m not sure how much of a victory it was. As much as I support the deal, admire the Prime Minister, and am relieved that the government survived, there’s no denying that the victory was the consequence of corruption.

There were two kinds of corruption. The first consisted of the furious deal-making that preceded the vote. God alone knows how many tawdry compromises on matters of policy and principle were made in the pursuit of victory. The go-ahead to the Ram Setu project, the promise to induct Shibu Soren in the Cabinet (after the Prime Minister had refused to include him on moral grounds), the renaming of Lucknow airport, the assurance of policy changes to northeastern MPs etc.

You can argue that this is not corruption because no money changed hands. I would argue that it is actually ‘worse’because policies and the long-term interests of the Indian state were compromised.

And then, there was the financial corruption. There is no doubt that MPs were bribed to abstain or defect. I have no idea whether the famous sting tapes will ever be telecast. But nobody in politics seriously disputes that money changed hands or that the victory was bought.

The loser, in the long run, is Manmohan Singh. Once this ‘Singh is King’nonsense fades, and the euphoria dissipates, the Prime Minister will find that he is perceived as just another politician. For a man who has spent his entire career being regarded as a paragon of virtue, this is hardly a happy consequence.

I do not believe that Manmohan Singh approved of — or was even aware of — the payments made on behalf of his government. But, given that he has so eagerly taken the credit for bringing the Samajwadi Party on board, can he really disown the activities of his new friends?

Manmohan Singh is an intelligent man. He must have been aware that entrusting the future of his government to the Samajwadi Party is the political equivalent of asking Moninder Singh Pandher to take care of your children.

But why blame the SP alone? Every political observer in Delhi knew that the Congress had drawn up a list of ‘vulnerable’MPs, and that responsibility for ‘winning them over’(which sounds nicer than ‘buying their votes’) had been divided between various Congress leaders. It strains credulity now to say that this had nothing to do with the Prime Minister or the battle that he got into with Prakash Karat. Perhaps, others did the actual buying, but one is reminded of Sarojini Naidu’s famous remark about Mahatma Gandhi: ‘It costs a lot of money to keep this man in poverty.’ Except, in this case, it costs a lot of money to keep Manmohan Singh in power.

As long as the Prime Minister was regarded as an otherworldly figure, interested only in matters of policy, he was morally insulated from the dirt of Indian politics. Now that he is seen as a manically aggressive and arrogantly inaccessible politician, he can no longer distance himself from the deals struck in his name or the bribes paid to save his office.

The Samajwadi Party: Despite the conventional wisdom, I don’t think that the SP has been damaged by the shenanigans surrounding the vote. To lose your reputation, you must first have one.

Nobody expected the SP to behave differently. And it has lived up to public expectations. Even if the sting tapes are telecast, Amar Singh will live to fight another day.

More damaging for the party has been Amar Singh’s failure to keep his promise that he would deliver 39 MPs to the Congress. The defections and the revolts suggest that he has much less control over the SP than he would like us to believe.

The happy consequence of this may be that he will be a slightly more subdued figure in the months ahead, less prone to bluster and bravado. Already, he has stopped attacking the likes of P. Chidambaram and Murli Deora.

The SP desperately needs an electoral tie-up with the Congress at the general election. If the alliance falls through, the Congress will lose very little; it has already virtually written off UP. But the SP needs the Congress vote share to make a strong electoral showing. Without an alliance, Mulayam Singh can spend the twilight of his political career watching Mayawati rule UP.


: I have always taken the line that as much as I disagreed with his views and with his methods, I respected Prakash Karat for taking a stand based on principle.

I now take that back.

Given the way he’s behaved over the last fortnight, it is clear that this battle is not about principle at all. No man of principle would go scurrying to pay court to Mayawati and try and stitch together a shoddy alliance based only on a desire to win power. His vindictiveness in expelling Somnath Chatterjee shames the Left.

The CPM used to be a high-minded party. Now, it is run by stubborn, power-hungry men, motivated by ego and vengeance.

The BJP: When the government won the confidence vote, the CPM should have been the biggest loser. But instead, it was the BJP that cut the sorriest figure.

Almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The party is now committed to an anti-deal position that it does not really believe in; it has lost a vote it said it would win; its reputation for discipline is in tatters after the large number of defections; it stands accused of lowering the image of Parliament by throwing currency notes around; it was left waiting for a sting telecast that never came; and, in the final days before the vote, it played a co-starring role to Mayawati, who stole the limelight.

The BJP now looks less like a government-in-waiting and more like the gang that can’t shoot straight.

Mayawati/Third Front:Was I the only person to be reminded of the image of vultures circling the carcass when I saw the pictures of gleeful Third Front leaders waiting to profit from the fall of the government?

It is revealing that after the vote, Mayawati’s explanation for the defeat was that upper castes did not want her to become Prime Minister. In her mind, the debate was not about the nuclear deal or Manmohan Singh’s performance. It was about her, and her own political ambitions.

What can one say about her Third Front colleagues? That they are small-timers and buffoons? Is anyone surprised any longer by Ajit Singh’s daily changes of alliance? Nearly two decades ago, I called him the ‘flip-flop man’of Indian politics. Nothing has changed in the years since. I am surprised he even remembers his name when he wakes up in the morning.

What of HD Deve Gowda, whose only hope of political survival after the debacle of the Karnataka elections is a seat adjustment with the Congress? Why should he suddenly cosy up to Mayawati? Because short-term ambition blinded his political judgement?

The most immediately terrifying aspect of the debate was not the widespread corruption or the complete lack of any political principle. It was the fear that after the next election, we may have a Third Front government with Mayawati as Prime Minister. God forbid.