By Swapan Dasgupta
There are many politicians who, after attaining a measure of public standing and glory, become convinced that a visible show of independence from their own political party is necessary for career advancement.
Forever the patrician, Jawaharlal Nehru took exceptional care to be both politically and aesthetically apart from his colleagues in the Congress. In the first Prime Minister's charmed social circle, if the contemporary testimony of an Australian diplomat published in 1966 is anything to go by, most Congress politicians were regarded as "provincial mediocrities, untravelled, ill-educated, narrow-minded; not a few were lazy; some were cow worshippers and devotees of ayurvedic medicine and astrology; some were dishonest."
Nehru's disdain for the 'dhotiwallah' was partly a class problem. In the main, however, it arose from his frustration at not being able to ride roughshod over powerful, provincial party bosses. Indira Gandhi didn't need to be disparaging about the Congress because as far she was concerned, she was the Congress. No one else mattered.
However, there was a visceral antipathy to the BJP that was discernible in the PMO and the other buildings of Race Course Road during the tenure of Atal Behari Vajpayee. The "right man in the wrong party" label, it would seem, convinced many of Vajpayee's associates to believe that the PM stood so much taller than the party that it was an embarrassment to even suggest he was a BJP leader. Indeed, many of the NDA Government's decisions seemed calculated to both spite and disorient the party.
The absurd lengths to which the courtiers of Vajpayee went to demarcate him from the BJP hasn't been as ridiculously replicated in the Manmohan Singh dispensation. However, there must be something in the vaastu of the three buildings on Race Course Road that makes PMs believe their power stems from a presidential-cum-monarchical system. "Singh is King" is just a song, and not a terribly good one at that. The fun and games start when some people in authority equate its title with a profoundly political portent.
For the past seven months, the UPA Government has been subjected to fierce artillery fire from the Opposition on one corruption charge after another. The scandals have claimed three ministerial scalps and even called into question Singh's ability to control his own Ministers. Perhaps for the first time in his formal political career, the PM has been subjected to both criticism and ridicule. For a person who first made his mark in public life on the strength of his education and knowledge, Singh has made "not knowing" into an art form. The buck has always stopped a little short of him.
More to the point his Teflon coating hasn't been eroded completely. Singh came under sustained bombardment last week in Parliament over a WikiLeaks cable on the cash-for-votes scandals of July 2008. Apart from a straight-faced denial that neither he nor the Congress was involved in bribing MPs, the PM had no credible answer to the charge that his interpretation of the Kishore Chandra Deo committee report of Parliament was a shade too selective.
Yet, ironically, the PM emerged from the fierce battle in Parliament triumphant. That, at least, was the view of the average Congress activist—in the mid-term it doesn't really matter how the proverbial Man from Matunga read the situation. That's because he deftly focussed his retaliatory fire on the weakest link in the BJP defences. By taunting L.K. Advani for his apparently unceasing prime ministerial ambition, Singh made the BJP benches appear like a band of desperate usurpers. It is significant that he didn't target the Leader of Opposition in either House for personal attacks: he fired single-mindedly on the man who lost an election but is unreconciled to the verdict.
No electorate likes being told it made a wrong choice. By insisting on the I-told-you-so approach, Advani has unwittingly diluted the effectiveness of the Opposition attack on the Government. The Congress Party has suffered grievously from the unending corruption scandals but the PM has somehow insulated himself from too much harm. Indeed, after the WikiLeaks debate Singh has emerged much stronger than he was a week before.
The respite may well be very temporary for there are just too many skeletons tumbling out of the UPA cupboard. But for the moment it makes sense for the PM to push ahead with his advantage—both in relation to a rampaging opposition and his own party.
The invitation to the Pakistan President and Prime Minister to join him at Mohali for the Indo-Pak semi-final next week is, of course, a gesture of courtesy by Singh. But the manner in which it has been packaged suggests that, seizing an unexpected opening, the PM is anxious to put the Indo-Pak dialogue process, which was feebly resurrected in Thimpu two months ago, on a fast track. This goes against the low-key approach India was compelled to adopt following the all-round hostile reaction to the Sharm-el-Sheikh agreement.
India has once again jumped into a bout of adventurist diplomacy with an unstable Pakistan because our PM needs to demonstrate something 'positive' to a sceptical party. Our neighbourhood policy is not merely being mortgaged to domestic compulsions, it has become a feature of a one-upmanship game involving the PM and his own party.