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Play your aces carefully

Apparently, there never was an ordinance. Now that Sonia Gandhi has pulled the Congress back from the precipice of political suicide, that?s what the party?s spin doctors would have us believe.
None | By Barkha Dutt
PUBLISHED ON MAR 29, 2006 04:30 AM IST

Apparently, there never was an ordinance. Now that Sonia Gandhi has pulled the Congress back from the precipice of political suicide, that’s what the party’s spin doctors would have us believe. So the very architects of the ordinance, the same advisors who were ready to roll up their sleeves and ‘play hardball’, are now simpering with sincerity. “Ordinance? What’s that?”

Right now, it can afford the bluster and the big talk. Whichever way you look at it, Sonia Gandhi’s resignation has brought the Opposition’s caravan of moral outrage to a screeching, sudden halt. What happens next is a technicality. The controversy has been aborted, the Opposition is agape with anger and the party is walking with the swagger of survival.

But do you spot something familiar in the way the story has unfolded? No, Sonia’s resignation isn’t the only déjà vu moment.

There’s a pattern here. In the last 22 months, every time a political crisis has swerved the government or the party to the brink, it has needed either the Congress president or the prime minister to grab the wheel and steer it back to safety. And each time, the two have had to distance themselves from decisions taken by the organisations they run, make their disagreement or their disapproval almost public, to gather up the collapsing credibility and undo the damage.

So far, as a rescue mission, it’s worked perfectly. But one of these days, the formula will fail; worse, the very goodwill that the two leaders enjoy could get eroded.

It’s already happened far too many times.

Remember Jharkhand — an ill-advised, brazen attempt to block the Opposition’s chances at power in the state? Party strategists, tinkering with dates for the vote of confidence, were adamant that if Shibu Soren got more time, he would make it as chief minister. Finally, an angry Supreme Court stepped in, setting the stage for a full-blown showdown. The government’s image was in serious danger of being sullied, when the prime minister intervened. Soren was asked to resign and word was out from the PMO that Manmohan Singh was “very angry and upset” at the skullduggery. The crisis passed.

Almost simultaneously, there was an inelegant political battle in Goa, and another controversial vote. Despite a slim one-vote win, the government, acutely mindful of public image, opted for President’s Rule. Once again, the buzz was that neither the Congress president nor the prime minister had been kept in the loop by party henchmen who were within sniffing distance of power.

Then there was perhaps the most impassioned speech Manmohan Singh has ever made in Parliament. The professorial prime minister, usually too mild-mannered to betray emotion, was uncharacteristically sentimental, almost tearful, when he apologised to India’s Sikhs for the 1984 riots. But perhaps he was also apologising for his own government’s callous and shoddy handling of the report of the Nanavati Commission, set up to investigate the riots.

Forty-eight hours before the prime minister’s intervention, the government’s own action-taken-report had exonerated all the Congress leaders accused in the riots, including a cabinet minister. The home minister went on record to say that nobody needed to resign. Public anger erupted; it was brink-point again. Manmohan Singh’s obvious candour and sincerity eventually restored some credibility. But not before the damage was done.

And who can forget the Volcker controversy and a foreign minister who refused to resign? For weeks the internal confusion, the passive-aggressive defence of Natwar Singh, the should-we-should-we-not dilemma played itself out on our television screens. Finally, a resignation in place, the Congress president went public at a leadership summit organised by this paper saying how “hurt and angry” she had been about the allegations.

Five days ago, when Sonia announced her decision to resign, I squeezed in a question. Hadn’t she been opposed to the party’s plans to push in an ordinance that would redefine an office of profit? A brief smile, and she looked away to take the next question. The answer was obvious. By now everyone knew that she was unconvinced of the ordinance, but pushed into the centre of the controversy; her own party had left her with no option but to resign and reclaim her reputation. It’s a different matter that her resignation saved the party’s reputation as well.

Now, as the storm simmers down  and political parties settle on an  agreement, it seems so commonsensical that you have to wonder why the government did not call an all-party meeting the moment Jaya Bachchan was disqualified, to debate a clearly archaic and myopic law. Instead, every party across the spectrum, played petty politics, pushing Parliament into absurdity and crisis. The BJP may hate admitting it, but Sonia Gandhi’s resignation restored order to the proceedings.

The question, though, is why did the Congress have to bring it to breakpoint before it could be fixed? And it’s a question that goes much beyond the ordinance fiasco. It seems to me that this government pretty much does the right thing in the end, but lets things get a lot worse before they get better.

If it’s true that courtiers are sometimes more loyal than the king, that indeed the prime minister and the party president are often the last to know, then the Congress must wonder if it can serve them better. But equally it calls for leadership of a different, more assertive kind. Public opinion is notoriously fickle. Those who applaud Sonia’s politics of renunciation will demand to know why she didn’t step in earlier. Those who believe that the prime minister is essentially an honourable man will still want to know why he couldn’t or didn’t assert himself more strongly? And those who believe in neither will target the party and the government for inhabiting an unwieldy power-sharing arrangement. Being a nice guy is no longer good enough. Delayed wisdom may actually be too late.

And the Congress needs to remember: if it uses its two aces to trump the competition each time, then one day, it will simply run out of cards.

The writer is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7

barkha@ndtv.com

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