In the high pressure, all-action world of 24-hour TV news, the anchors often lack the time to pull back and reflect. But if they did, I have no doubt that they would come to the same conclusion that I reached last week after appearing on a CNN-IBN discussion on the results of an opinion poll that HT and the channel had jointly commissioned.
There is a paradox in the way in which we in the media perceive the UPA government.
Think about it. As recently as a week ago, the news channels were reporting on the state of the government as though it was a patient in the intensive care unit. Each day brought new controversies, new scandals, new criticisms, and new stories about parliamentary disruptions. But now that the UPA has completed the first year of its second term, the mood of the reporting has suddenly changed. All the opinion polls suggest that far from lingering at death’s door, the government is stronger than ever.
Our own poll — based on the views of opinion formers — suggests that over 90 per cent believe that the government will last its full term. The NDTV poll — based on a sample of voters — suggests that if an election were to be held today, the UPA would actually win more seats than it did a year ago. Far from collapsing, the government is flourishing.
There were four of us journos on the CNN-IBN programme — Vinod Mehta, Manini Chatterjee, Swapan Dasgupta and myself — and while many of us were critical of elements of the government’s performance, all of us broadly agreed that it was in no danger at all. When Rajdeep Sardesai was closing the show, I struck a note of caution: nobody can predict what will happen in Indian politics so it would be wrong to be over-optimistic about the government’s prospects.
But there was no getting around one fact: the sound and fury of the last month have done no lasting damage to UPA 2.
Why should this be so? I have a few theories and my fellow panellists had many ideas of their own.
First of all, nobody wants an election at this stage. Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh and Mayawati may rave and rant but they have little to gain from bringing the government down at this stage. Should the government fall, then the most likely outcome is an attempt to form another government within this Parliament. And given the Congress’ numbers, it would have to be at the centre of any exercise in government formation. That’s why the party leadership is not worried (though its political managers are less certain) by threats over cut motions and the like.
Second, the BJP is in a mess. I do not dispute that under Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj the party has punched above its weight in Parliament or that it has given the government some anxious moments.
But a vociferous Opposition is not necessarily the same thing as a government-in-waiting. When it is time to vote, nobody says, “I am going to elect the BJP because they created hell in Parliament for 42 days.” Voters look for evidence of leadership, unity and constructive policies. In all of these areas, the new avatar of the BJP is still a work in progress.
Third, we make a serious mistake if we underestimate the prime minister’s own popularity. It has become fashionable within the political class to say that the Congress wins elections because of the popularity of the Gandhis and that Manmohan Singh is no more than an increasingly reticent figurehead.
In fact, not only is the prime minister no figurehead (just ask that large section within the Congress that opposed the nuclear deal and now opposes his Pakistan policy), his personality is perfect for the electorate in its current mood.
The general image of Indian politicians throughout the country is that they are venal, corrupt intriguers who talk too much and do too little. In contrast, Manmohan Singh comes off as an essentially decent, entirely honest, soft-spoken person who has no time for politicking. The BJP made a mistake by underestimating the decency factor at the last election. Many of its members continue to make the same mistake: voters are not looking for demagogues or ideologues. They just want a decent man to lead them.
Fourth, whatever your views on the government’s failures, there can be no denying that its achievements over the last six years have been considerable. The emphasis on programmes that directly transfer wealth to the poor (NREGS, the loan write-off, etc) has won the UPA considerable support in the countryside. And in the cities, it is clear that one reason why India has been spared the worst excesses of the global recession is because the UPA combined high growth with fiscal caution and protected the economy.
But there are other factors that explain the government’s popularity as well. It struck me while recording the CNN-IBN programme that the four of us (and Rajdeep, I suspect) had few fundamental disagreements. We quibbled about little things (for instance, Swapan blamed inflation on the UPA’s ‘profligate spending’) but there were no big issues to divide us.
If we had been recording the programme during the NDA regime, there would have been arguments over such emotive issues as the Gujarat riots, the persecution of Tehelka, the campaign against Christians, and the Hindutva agenda of the Sangh parivar’s lunatic fringe.
For better or for worse, we have reached an ideological consensus within Indian politics. We may disagree on specifics but the UPA has done its best to avoid the divisive politics that often marred the NDA’s record.
It was Vinod Mehta who made one of the most perceptive points on our show. You could argue, he said, that the UPA often spoke in too many voices on such issues as the Maoist problem. On the other hand, you could also see it as an asset. On important issues, the Congress now has a multiplicity of views. Not only does this reduce the space for the official opposition (on the Maoist problem, for instance, the BJP’s view does not go beyond we-love-Chidambaram), but it also allows the Congress to choose the position that resonates the best with the country when it decides to act.
None of this is to forgive the government its obvious failures — the double-standard that leads it to sack the Congress’ Shashi Tharoor, for instance, while allowing the DMK’s entirely crooked A. Raja to flourish — or to argue that it has done enough. (Speaking for myself, I would like to see Manmohan Singh lead more from the front.)
But it may explain an apparent paradox in today’s politics: after weeks of declaring that the government is in deep trouble, we in the media are now accepting that it might be in a far stronger position that we were willing to recognise.
The views expressed by the author are personal