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UPA: The war within

By blaming unnamed 'forces' for trying to destabilise the polity, the PM is only externalising what is an internal crisis, writes Barkha Dutt.

columns Updated: Sep 30, 2011 23:04 IST
Barkha Dutt
Barkha Dutt
Hindustan Times

In politics, it is reflexive and sometimes accurate to brand the Opposition as opportunistic. Equally, the art of war legitimately permits you to position the media on your strategy map as a perennial enemy and sneer at its need to feed a monstrous 24x7 appetite. For months now, the UPA has retaliated to mounting criticism and public despair with one of these two responses.

But what do you do when the assault comes - not from the other side of the trench - but from those manning the defence positions at the frontline? If the generals leading the forces had cared to pay closer attention, they would have noticed that sniper fire - on their own side of the battlelines - was an almost daily occurrence. When ministers and party leaders squabbled in public, they would dress it up as internal democracy. But they barely disguised their glee in bringing each other down a peg or two, while the hapless Big Two of the party, either looked the other way or failed to stop the scrapping. Soon the intermittent use of small arms erupted into full-scale mortar fire. And the UPA became a government at war with itself.

A Kodak moment - painstakingly scripted after tough negotiations - has now sought to sound a ceasefire between two of the UPA's senior-most ministers. But a picture does speak a thousand words. Their faces betrayed the truth behind this reluctant and tenuous peace.

Sun Tzu - the ancient Chinese strategist - whose military wisdom was later followed by Napoleon, Mao-Tse Tung and even the American generals who led Operation Desert Storm - first wrote about how winning a war required an "enlightened ruler to be heedful and the good general full of caution. This is the way to keep an army intact and a country at peace."

But the UPA leadership has substituted caution with paralysis and instead of paying heed, has repeatedly refused to mend things till they are often entirely broken. The nemesis of this government is not the 2G scam or even the shenanigans of its disgraced former telecom minister A Raja. The greater failure of the UPA is its inability to lead, assert, communicate with and offer hope to a country that is in danger of losing its self-confidence.

That the Congress stubbornly refuses to learn - despite an admission from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the government has been weak at tackling public perception - is evident in the depleting numbers of its spokespersons. Through the recent crisis - apart from the calm and consistent interventions of Salman Khurshid, the law minister, and the brave omnipresence of Abhishek Singhvi and Renuka Choudhary - not one party leader was willing to come out and take a public position. The wimpish fence-sitting by most in the party meant that the voluble space naturally went to its opponents.

The UPA may have a valid point in arguing that a simplistic and judgmental media narrative has conflated issues of a debatable telecom policy (first come, first served) with a corrupt subversion of that policy (Raja advancing dates to favour key telecom players). But, as the head of government, why hasn't the PM then taken ownership of that policy decision, whilst condemning the blatant irregularities in its implementation? Detailed correspondence - now available in the public domain because of RTI activists - clearly shows an abject failure by the Cabinet to stop Raja from pursuing a policy many of them clearly disagreed with.

In fact, on January 7, 2008, Raja blatantly misused and misrepresented a routine acknowledgment letter by the PM to claim endorsement for his contentious policy. He then postponed a scheduled meeting of the telecom commission and audaciously carried on with the allocation of licences. A later file noting that asked for the Prime Minister's Office to be kept at "arm's length" was officially explained as the PM's reluctance to get involved in corporate rivalries among telecom players, and not a sign of looking away from corruption. But the perception remains in public understanding that there was a political one-arm-distance approach to Raja by the Congress for fear of taking on a powerful ally.

The tragedy is that this distant, aloof style of leadership has continued to be the characteristic style of the UPA's top two leaders. In a week when the government is virtually tottering, one of the most popular challengers to its credibility - Anna Hazare has decided to go online. He is now a blogger and has also opened accounts on Facebook and Twitter. It's a rather telling irony when contrasted with the refusal of the PM to even give interviews to the media and the rare press interactions by Sonia Gandhi. The Congress has sneered at the emphasis on communication as being an indulgence demanded by the middle class. But it is this disregard for the middle class to begin with that partially threw up a sea of support for the anti-corruption Hazare movement.

Sun Tzu also wrote that a "kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come back into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life." The PM blamed unnamed "forces" for trying to destabilise the polity. But he is externalising what is (at least) partially an internal crisis. There are those who have argued that the PM is like a CEO, not mandated with enough authority to control a divided, squabbling board. But think of the consumers - the citizens of this country - who feel themselves slipping into a depression that can only be created by a deep sense of being adrift. We have a right to expect and demand better of our leaders. And companies have been known to collapse permanently when consumer confidence is betrayed. India is standing on that precipice.

(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal)

First Published: Sep 30, 2011 23:01 IST