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Emotion Over Substance

The trouble with the nuclear deal is that it has zero emotional power. Nobody cares enough to vote for the Congress because it supports it, writes Vir Sanghvi.
By HT Correspondent | None
UPDATED ON JUL 13, 2008 03:02 AM IST

Yes, I know, I’m getting as tired of this interminable political drama as you are. When the Left withdrew support after four years of threats and abuse, we should all have been sitting up, thrilled to watch this crucial twist in the plot. Instead, we greeted the development with an air of weary inevitability.

Now, we should be worried about the confidence vote, which could be touch and go. But nobody has the energy left to care.

But, for better or for worse, it is still the future of our country that is at stake. So forgive me for any fourth straight political column in a row. My point this week is that, in politics, emotion and image count for as much as substance.

Weak Prime Minister: Was Atal Bihari Vajpayee a strong Prime Minister? Most of us would say he was and we’d probably be right. Along with Brajesh Mishra, he pretty much ran the country from Race Course Road.

But it’s the Vajpayee of the second term that we remember. Few of us now recall the failing, stumbling Prime Minister of the first term, the man who had no control over the price of onions.

What made the difference? After all, Vajpayee’s two single biggest achievements — the Pokhran tests and the Kargil victory — took place during the first term not the second.

I think we judge the strength or weakness of Prime Ministers by their ability to visibly impose their wills on their governments. The Vajpayee of the first term had Jayalalitha to contend with. Each week she would make some outrageous demand. Emissaries would fly to Madras to mollify her. Periodically, she would threaten to withdraw support.

Eventually, Jayalalitha did pull out and the Vajpayee government did fall. But when Vajpayee came back — and no longer needed her MPs — he seemed stronger for it.

As Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh is unchallenged in the Cabinet. Such powerful allies as Sharad Pawar and Lalu Yadav have unquestioningly accepted the Prime Minister’s leadership. Contrary to predictions, no parallel power centre has grown up around 10 Janpath. As the current crisis proves, so high is Sonia Gandhi’s regard for Dr Singh that she is willing to sacrifice the government on his say so.

So why does the BJP get away with calling the PM “weak”?

Mainly, it’s because of the Left who have played the Jayalalitha role in this coalition. It wasn’t enough that they could influence the agenda. They needed to keep attacking the government and berating the Prime Minister’s decisions.

On most measures, Singh has been a good Prime Minister. He has presided over the greatest period of prosperity in modern Indian history.

But in politics, appearance is everything. So just as Vajpayee was seen as weak when Jayalalitha undermined his authority, Manmohan Singh’s real strength has been underestimated because of the constant carping of the Left.

For future coalitions, the lesson is clear: it’s not what you do when you are in office that determines your image. It is how the coalition partners behave in public.

Emotion, not Substance: American politicians have long worked out that voters react less to complex issues (which they never fully understand) than to the emotions surrounding them.

Indian parties seem slower to grasp this — with one notable exception. The BJP understands the power of emotions at elections. It gained strength by whipping up a sentiment over Hindutva. And when Vajpayee came back to power after Jayalalitha’s withdrawal of support, it was because of the emotional power of the Pokhran tests and the Kargil victory. Sometimes, the BJP chooses the wrong emotion, as it did with India Shining.But the appeal is always emotional.

The Left, on the other hand, has no clue. If an election is held in November, the CPM will fare badly in Bengal and Kerala. Nor will it have an issue on which it can appeal to the people. It can hardly explain the specifics of the Hyde Act to the electorate. And as an election issue, “we opposed the nuclear deal because India was aligning with America” has a curiously dated air, reminiscent of JNU debates in the 1970s, and very little emotional power.

The Congress’s problem this time is that is ready to sacrifice its government on an issue that has no emotional power whatsoever. It does not play well with the electorate to say: “I threw away my prime ministership because I had got President Bush to agree to give us uranium for our nuclear reactors but the Left did not like it.”

One way of demonstrating that the nuclear deal has no emotional power is to look at the BJP’s stand. Most BJP voters are inclined towards the deal. Educated Indians know that the BJP is lying. If it had got even half of what Manmohan has managed, it would have grabbed the deal. If it wins the election, it will reverse its stand and sign.

And yet, do you know a single BJP voter who says that he won’t vote for the party because it is being hypocritical about the deal?

If the BJP had been caught lying on issues that had an emotional power, people would have reconsidered voting for it. I know many loyalists who wondered if the BJP was still their party after LK Advani defended Jinnah. I know many liberal BJP supporters who declared that could not vote for the party after the Gujarat riots.

The trouble with the nuclear deal is that it has zero emotional power. Nobody cares enough to vote for the Congress because it supports it. Nobody cares enough to vote for the Left because it opposes it. And nobody cares enough to stop voting for the BJP because it lies about it.

None of this has to do with substance. It has to do with emotion. And politics is often about emotion.

The Prime Minister: And, finally, a few reluctant words about the Prime Minister. I have made no secret of my respect and admiration of Manmohan Singh. He is one of the most brilliant men I know. His integrity stands out like a beacon in the wilderness of Indian politics. Most important, he is a decent man. It is hard to spend five minutes with him and not come away feeling relieved that India is in the hands of somebody whose essential goodness shines through.

I do not believe, as some people do, that he is an arrogant man. I do not accept that this battle is some ego clash with Prakash Karat. In the many years I have known him, Manmohan Singh has never once taken a decision on the basis of personal ego. With him, it is always national interest.

I do not share his view that this deal is so important to India that it is worth sacrificing everything for. But I do not dispute that his view stems from his conception of national interest.

And I think he is playing this all wrong.

He is coming off as a man who is prepared to martyr his party at the altar of his own beliefs while he heads off to some high-minded retirement.

It worries me that nearly every leak or plant that comes out of PMO casts Manmohan Singh as St George fighting the Congress dragon. It makes no sense for the PM’s men to brief against his own party, to continually suggest that Manmohan will resign unless the party falls in line.

Quite apart from the fact that this is disloyal to the Congress, it does the PM no favours. He should come across as a visionary leader. Instead he comes off as a stubborn, petulant Prime Minister, under siege, whose first reaction to everything is to threaten to quit.

Nor does it make any sense to spin an improbable tale casting him as a political Machiavelli who outwitted the Left by going, turban in hand, to Amar Singh. The image is so offensive that it negates everything Manmohan Singh stands for.

Assuming the Congress finds the numbers, then the Prime Minister has another six months or so in office. This presents a rare opportunity.

He is finally rid of Karat. His party has backed him with its political life. There are no excuses left.

He should remember that elections are won on emotion not substance. The Manmohan we cheered when he walked into Race Course Road was a brilliant man who had the courage to transform India.

We need to see that Manmohan Singh. He must finally impose his vision on his government, stop complaining and get on with the job. India needs a Prime Minister who leads.

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