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Counterpoint: And Now What?

Congress will now have to learn to cope with allies of a very different nature, with prickly egos, with verbal diarrhoea and many personal agendas, writes Vir Sanghvi.
None | By Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON JUL 06, 2008 01:36 PM IST

My favourite aphorism these days is: all logical analysis of Indian politics fails because there is no logic to Indian politics. So I’m not even sure that it makes any sense in trying to assess the events of the last month. Nor can we be sure that everything will proceed according to the plans that parties are spelling out over the weekend: depending on the Samajwadi Party is a high-risk business, on par with jumping out of an aircraft at 20,000 feet with no parachute, or swimming with a shark and wondering if your day will end with you inside his stomach.

But, now that the disclaimers are out of the way, here are some preliminary assessments of how the principal players in this drama stand at the end of this episode.

The Left: This was not part of the script that Prakash Karat had written. He expected one of two outcomes: either the government would bow before the Left or he would pull it down over his issue of principle. Both scenarios cast him as the hero. He was either the 21st century’s most powerful commissar or he was a true heir to the revolutionary traditions of VI Lenin, Mao Tse-Tung, Che Guevara and Marx alone knows who else.

Now, he’s ending up looking less like the hero and more like the joker.

If all goes well, the government will go ahead with the nuclear deal. And it will survive. There’s little Karat can do to alter either of those outcomes.

So, where did he go wrong?

The short answer is that while Karat is a bright fellow, one of the cleverest minds of the 19th century even, he knows nothing about politics (or about nuclear technology or foreign affairs either judging by his stand on the deal — but that’s another story). He’s never won a municipal election in his life and, therefore, has little idea of how these things actually work.

It had clearly never occurred to him that for the Left to be counting on the Samajwadi Party’s support was short-sighted and unrealistic. Ever since he’s taken over as top commissar in the CPM, he has backed the SP through thick and thin, bravely enduring the sneers and taunts of the commentariat with the smug self-assurance of a man who knows he’s always right.

So, he can’t be pleased with the way things have turned out. He’s been betrayed by an ally. He’s thrown away the Left’s newly acquired influence in decision-making. And he’s ended up looking like a sad, sorry relic of an ancient Marxist past — dogmatic and obsolete.

While it’s only natural for the rest of us to gloat a little given Karat’s insufferable self-righteousness, it’s also sad that things have turned out this way.

Despite the events of the last year, the Left does have an important role to play in Indian politics. Such leaders as Karat are honest, principled and thoughtful (usually!) men with a patriotic centre.

Doubly sad then that Karat blew it so badly.

The Congress:

It’s not something that most people have noticed but Sonia Gandhi and the Congress have turned out to be politically adept master survivors. Each time the commentariat has written them off, they’ve beaten the odds: the Office of Profit controversy, the presidential election and now this little stratagem.

The significance of this triumph — if all goes according to plan — is that the Congress has averted an election at a time of rising inflation. If things get better, as they are expected to, then an election next spring suits the party much better.

The other important lesson of this episode is that the party now backs the Prime Minister a full 100 per cent. Last year, when Manmohan Singh wanted an election on the deal, the party was restive and the allies revolted.

This time around, the Prime Minister went back on his claim at last year’s HT Summit (“If the deal does not go through, it will not be the end of life”) and decided that he would go down with the nuclear deal. It was a morally valid position but one he resorted to again without any prior consultation with the party president or the Working Committee.

Despite some initial dismay at the unilateralism of the Prime Minister’s position, and the fear of an early election, the Congress backed him so completely that even nervous allies tempered their opposition to his stand in the face of the party’s determined support of Manmohan Singh.

No Prime Minister has ever staked his government’s future so completely and so unilaterally without taking his party into confidence.

It is a measure of the esteem with which Sonia Gandhi regards Manmohan Singh that the party backed him blindly, nevertheless.

Even as party negotiators spoke to the Left or stitched up the deal with the SP, they never once considered the option of telling Manmohan to return to his HT Summit position (“We are not a one-issue government”).

The BJP can sneer all it wants. But Manmohan Singh has just demonstrated that he is not a weak Prime Minister.

I doubt very much if LK Advani, let alone the RSS, would have backed AB Vajpayee so completely if this situation had arisen during the last government.

The Future: Talking to Manmohan Singh over the last year, I had a distinct sense that he seemed like a battered wife trapped in a marriage that had gone brutally wrong.

He knew what needed to be done to secure India’s future. But at every step of the way, he was stymied and heckled by the Left. The Left’s leaders would be stubborn, unreasonable and openly offensive. They would say one thing in private, another in public. They would openly attack the government. Men who had never held any office in their lives would tell Manmohan how to run the country. Dimwits who understood no economics would tell him how to manage the economy.

His ultimatum of the last month — ‘either the deal goes through or I go’ — was only partly prompted by his passion for nuclear energy. Mostly it came out of a growing frustration at the manner in which the Left was behaving. He had simply had enough.

For the Prime Minister’s sake, we are all glad that he’s no longer dependant on the Left. But I doubt very much if the Congress’s alliance with the SP will be as easy as, say, the alliance with the DMK or the RJD has been.

There is a certain paradox involved in saying that you are taking a moral stand on the deal and then going, cap in hand, to those paragons of virtue Mulayam Singh and Amar Singh.

It is true that the SP needs the Congress in UP at the next general election and so will not pull out before then. But it is as true that because this government needs the SP for its survival, it will not be able to do anything if, say, Amar Singh launches an attack on Murli Deora on behalf of Anil Ambani. It will be unable to do very much if, say, Amar Singh holds a press conference to abuse P Chidambaram for the crime of being much brighter than him and making no secret of it.

Say this for Prakash Karat and his band of 19th century commissars: they may have been arrogant, self-righteous, trapped in an ancient mindset and foolish even, but they had no hidden agendas. They were not driven by personal ego, by a desire to be noticed, or by the interests of individual industrialists.

The Congress will now have to learn to cope with allies of a very different nature, with prickly egos, with verbal diarrhoea and many, many personal agendas. The government may well be able to handle this. But it won’t be easy.

The true test of the Prime Minister comes now. His party has backed him and found him new allies. Can he now show India that he will use those extra months to do more than just push the nuclear deal through? Will he control prices? Will he give back a worried nation its dream of prosperity?

That — and not the nuclear deal alone — will determine Manmohan Singh’s political legacy.

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