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Right intention, wrong signals

india Updated: May 22, 2009 21:26 IST
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Jai ho! Aaiye aapka bhagya parichay kara den — “Glory be! Come, let me acquaint you with your future.” On the new government’s first day in office, the traditional sales pitch of the pavement astrologer has prophetic resonance. The electorate has voted against instability and hatred and for a return to a political ethic of confidence, civility and graciousness. But the drama of government formation suggests we may be disappointed. After the initial euphoria, everyone’s gone back to their bad old ways.

Monday felt like an unscheduled subcontinental festival. In Delhi, Congresswallahs were still revelling over their unexpected win. In Mumbai, Dalal Street marked the massacre of the Left with a world-beating surge. And in Colombo, just before the anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, they were out on the streets celebrating the death of V. Prabhakaran.

Tuesday onwards, the Congress was wheeling and dealing with allies who pledged unconditional support. After Manic Monday, markets looked positively sober. But old habits die hard. As the days passed, we saw a return to everything we had voted against: allies making unreasonable demands while pretending to be undemanding and the Congress behaving ungraciously with genuinely undemanding allies, while promoting the Nehru-Gandhi bloodline in a sideshow.

On the one hand, there was the duplicity of the Trinamool Congress, striking hard bargains while assuring the electorate of their high-minded disinterest. On the other, there was the brazenness of the DMK, which was demanding berths for the whole Karunanidhi clan apart from forgettable ministers in the last government. Most embarrassingly, M. Karunanidhi was in denial of the death of Prabhakaran, a watershed event in subcontinental politics. A major prospective partner of the government hoped to keep alive emotive Tamil nationalism by creating another deathless Netaji.

In the meantime, the Congress kept up its tradition of ingratitude, keeping undemanding old friends hanging as it courted allies who are leading thespians. Remember, the most voluble support for the UPA during the no-confidence motion brought on by Prakash Karat came from Lalu Yadav and Omar Abdullah — the very people whom the Congress neglected to inform about their future.

One appreciates that the Congress is doing a difficult balancing act, refusing to be pushed around while trying to keep out regional leaders who regard a Union cabinet berth as a lottery ticket. It isn’t easy to apply a transparent formula for power-sharing to accommodate both allies and its own star performers. But better information-sharing would have prevented it from looking ungracious. And did it have to raise the usual sycophantic chorus promoting Rahul Gandhi? If the man is genuinely interested in reforming and democratising the Congress, why not give him the chance?

The voter has brought in this government at a crucial moment of opportunity. Stable in the midst of a global recession, we have a chance of closing the gap with more powerful nations. Regionally, Pakistan is in unprecedented turmoil. In Sri Lanka, the death of Prabhakaran leaves the way open for an ethical, fruitful engagement with the island. And there is always the fear of Chinese hegemonism. Domestically, the voter is demanding a return to real, immediate issues. No government can deliver on all this without moving away from the unethical and confused political culture of the past.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine.