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Losing the edge?

The absence of coherence within the Congress is creating an impression of a splintered UPA. And a united Opposition is making the most of it, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Apr 16, 2010 23:16 IST
Barkha Dutt
Barkha Dutt
Hindustan Times

Let’s buck the current middle-class trend of mindless politician-bashing and first agree that there are some extremely bright and capable minds in the present government who have shaken up slumbering ministries and used cerebral energy to push the paradigms of conventional thinking. It’s also pretty indisputable that a well-intentioned and essentially liberal Congress leadership can be credited with several transformative decisions.

Whether it’s the Right to Information Act (RTI), the Women’s Reservation Bill or demanding a revamp of the Food Security Bill, it’s quite clear that Sonia Gandhi’s left-of-centre heart seeks to position the Congress as a party accessible to those who live on the margins. In other words, UPA-II should have been a brainy government with a generous heart that benefited from the brawn of a generous electoral mandate. So, why is it that while the finest ingredients have been laid out on the kitchen table, whipping up a good meal is turning out to be such a tough task?

Even before the UPA can complete a year in its second term, the noise of incoherence threatens to drown out all the other good stuff. What we are hearing is the distinct cacophony of crossed wires that has made the political leadership sound — on more than one occasion — deeply splintered. It’s still unclear if this is a result of personality clashes, philosophical disagreements or merely the absence of discipline and the presence of too many motormouths. But whether it is spats that play out in public or long periods of silence by the party on a contentious government policy or minister (think Sharm-el-Sheikh and Shashi Tharoor), there is a growing perception of internal chaos.

The image of the Congress president thumping on her desk as Home Minister P. Chidambaram took on his critics in Parliament may have done much to silence his detractors on the government’s Maoist policy. But, it doesn’t make Digvijay Singh’s public broadside against Chidambaram any less startling. For a two-time chief minister and the party’s senior-most general secretary to be able to personalise his disagreements with Chidambaram in the manner that he did begs the conspiratorial question — was he acting on his own or did someone set him up to do this? Of course, the Naxal challenge poses some genuine dilemmas for the party.

If the Congress wants to be the voice of disenfranchised, the image of impoverished tribals trapped between the battlelines can make anyone nervous about an aggressive change of tack. But if those ideological uncertainties are not just made public but also expressed in terms of personal swipes, what chance does the government have of creating a public consensus for its anti-Naxal offensive? If the party can’t even curb the ever-garrulous and contrarian Mani Shankar Aiyar, does the prime minister’s gag order to his ministers carry any weight or credibility? And why make such a fuss then about the military chiefs’ opinions in public? If the netas can’t zip up, why should they?

It is true that politics often demands ambivalence above linear certainties — but not when that ambivalence becomes visible to the public eye as a sign of indecision.

As the unfolding Indian Premier League (IPL) scam throws up unimaginable levels of muck and sleaze, Shashi Tharoor has yet again exposed faultlines within the establishment. For now, it looks like the government is determined to challenge IPL chief Lalit Modi’s testosterone-driven bravado. But along the way, it will also have to tackle the allegations of impropriety that threaten to swallow up its minister of state for external affairs. The fact is that the Congress never quite seems to make up its mind about Tharoor. Is he the great middle-class hope — the intelligent professional who won an election without a godfather or a grandfather in politics? Or is he the naïve upstart who has been destroyed by his own hubris?

Tharoor told me that he was “angry and hurt” that his personal integrity had been questioned. But he insisted that his party had not “left him out in the cold”. The truth though is that every time Tharoor is embroiled in a controversy, the party appears reluctant to defend him, leaving you and me to decode the ambivalence. If the Congress isn’t convinced enough to take a clear stand, why should it expect the opposition to lay off?

A crippled Left and an ideologically confused Right should actually not have been in a position to put pressure on the government. But Parliament has repeatedly witnessed a united opposition effectively taking on a divided government. Much of it is simply a result of shabby floor management and poor planning. But some of it is also emerging from a difference in priorities and the passions they evoke. It’s clear that the Women’s Bill is to Sonia Gandhi what the Nuclear Liability Bill is to Manmohan Singh. If Sonia Gandhi can dig her heels in for the Rti Act to remain unchanged; the PM is more likely to get determined about a pet foreign policy initiative.

While the media may be overstating some of their genuine differences of opinion to create the clichéd headline of ‘party vs government’, it’s now obvious that the motivations of the Big Two can be very different. The Congress president’s assertive intervention on the Food Security Bill is just one example of how the thinking within can often be very divided. In itself these differences need not be a serious problem. But perhaps the multiple articulations of these disagreements — or sometimes the studied silence of the party’s spokespeople — is what creates an impression of disarray.

In the process, the Congress is in danger of squandering away the advantage of its own electoral mandate. Its instincts are honourable. But that is not enough. The party must decide who it wants to be and the government must take a cue from that vision and assert itself with greater clarity. Or else, the battle within, may take up more energy than the real matters of the State.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Apr 16, 2010 23:13 IST