Sanyas obviously means different things to different people. In 2003, soon after losing the Madhya Pradesh elections, Digvijaya Singh rather dramatically announced, “I have decided to take political sanyas for the next 10 years.”
Eight years later, far from living the life of renunciation, the Congress leader appears to be making headlines every other day. Remind him about his claim of taking sanyas, and the impish smile returns: “When I said sanyas I meant that I would not seek any government post for 10 years. Have I been a minister or do I hold any official position in government?”
Minister he may be not, but there is little doubt that Singh is now a power centre within the complex UPA-Congress equation. In a sense, the two time Madhya Pradesh chief minister is to UPA 2 what the Left was to Manmohan Singh’s first government: the opposition within. In the first UPA avatar, the Left would openly red flag any issue which they felt would hurt their political ideology: be it the Indo-US nuclear deal or public sector privatisation. In UPA 2, it’s been left to Digvijaya Singh to play that adversarial role. Be it the Naxal policy, land acquisition or anti-terror laws, the Congress general secretary has been determinedly pursuing what appears to be a contrarian agenda to that of the UPA government, often creating dissonance within the ruling arrangement, quite apart from providing fodder to a ravenous media.
And yet, there is clearly a method to the seeming madness of what appears to be Singh’s role of house dissident. For many traditional Congressmen, Manmohan Singh is still the ‘outsider’, the lateral entrant whose reform-friendly economist avatar is not quite what a party system based on populist hand-outs is comfortable with. Digvijaya’s rhetoric appeals to the old style Congressman, more familiar with slogans rather than policy prescriptions. Take Digvijaya’s remarks on Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare. By calling Ramdev a ‘thug’ and suggesting that Hazare was an RSS agent, he has brought in a ‘saffron’ edge to the debate over the anti-corruption agitation. By questioning the government’s action in sending Cabinet ministers to the airport to receive the yoga guru, he has virtually accused it of compromising with religious babas of questionable credentials. In the process, he has sought to reinforce his own identity as a ‘secular fundamentalist’ whose politics revolves around being the matador who is constantly getting under the skin of the Sangh parivar bull.
As a result, after the Gandhi family, Digvijaya is now political Hindutva’s No. 1 hate figure. Whether on Twitter or at public rallies, Digvijaya has now become a favourite whipping boy for the saffron brotherhood, a classic exemplar of what they see as Congress pseudo-secularism. By raising doubts over the arrest of Muslim youth in terror plots while openly targeting ‘Hindu terror’, Digvijaya is accused by his critics of having stirred the pot of minority communalism in the guise of secularism.
Digvijaya Singh has defended himself by claiming that he has resisted all forms of religious extremism: that as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, he arrested VHP leader Praveen Togadia and also acted against minority extremist groups. And yet, he cannot shake off the popular middle class perception of being a leader who is ‘appeasing’ the minorities. After all, when you rail against a Sadhvi Pragya but refer to Osama bin Laden as Osama-ji, you are asking to be labelled as a pseudo-secularist.
Perhaps, that’s an image which suits Digvijaya in the contemporary political context. The classic Congress worldview has been that the key to winning elections is the strong support of minorities: be it Muslims, Dalits or adivasis. The Congress’s electoral struggles over the last two decades across north India have been primarily because the party has lost the support of precisely these social groups. As an astute politician who is now in charge of the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, Singh knows that any Congress revival is predicated on a Dalit-Muslim alliance on the ground. While the Dalits have been significantly empowered by Mayawati, the Muslims remain vulnerable to emotional appeals that address their insecurities over being targeted for their religious status. Singh is attempting to tap into precisely these feelings every time he dares the Sangh parivar. In a way he is emulating another MP Congressman, the late Arjun Singh who also wore the badge of ‘secularism’ and ‘social justice’ by consciously wooing the minorities and the backward castes.
But in the age of 8% economic growth, identity politics of the Muslim-Mandal variety does have its limits. We are slowly inching forward from the politics of grievance to the politics of aspiration. Fear and division cannot be the basis of a new India politics. ‘Inclusiveness’ is the new mantra. Which means that old style politics of community consolidation is losing out to good governance and bijli-sadak-pani. Neither can the BJP win elections by promising to build a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, nor can the Congress win by simply raising the Hindutva bogey at election time. Perhaps, Digvijaya knows this, but he also knows that giving it up would mean losing out on his political USP.
Post-script: There is one X factor in Digvijaya Singh’s political ambitions: the man who he has pitched for as India’s next leader, Rahul Gandhi. We know little of Rahul’s politics, but they broadly seem to parallel the left-of-centre vision of Digvijaya. If in 2014, Rahul chooses not to take up the Congress leadership, will he look for his own Manmohan to drive his agenda? By 2014, the 10 years of Diggy Raja’s ‘sanyas’ could be well and truly over.
( Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 Network )
The views expressed by the author are personal