Saturday, September 03, 2011

Compared to Rahul, Manmohan shines

By Swapan Dasgupta

 It has been an entire week since Anna Hazare broke his fast and ended the carnival of direct democracy in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan. Yet, a week has proved to be a woefully short time for the message of the 12-day August upsurge to sink in. From Lutyens’ Delhi to Chanakyapuri, there is consternation and confusion over the impact of the stir. Will it be the proverbial Indian storm when people let the legions thunder past and plunge to sleep again? Or, will India never be the same again?

 The magnitude of concern can’t be underestimated. Over the past week I have heard pillars of the Establishment first express bewilderment over Anna’s appeal and then, as the evening progressed, seen tut-tutting give way to unrestrained fulminations. As for the political class, conspiracy theories centred on RSS involvement and the lavish use of ‘foreign money’ has evolved into a robust defence of what a quasi-political functionary described to me as “Constitutional fundamentalism”.

In practical terms, this has not involved a discovery of Edmund Burke but base recriminations: slapping privilege notices and tax demands on the infamous Team Anna. In diplomatic circles, the disorientation has been more pronounced. In the normal course it wasn’t cricket to repeat conversations with diplomats. But since conversations with American diplomats can any longer be deemed either privileged or confidential thanks to WikiLeaks, I may as well reveal that representatives of the world’s only superpower are about as confused and concerned as the neighbourhood whiskey-drinking real estate speculator. Their worries were hearteningly authentic. First, why was there such a mismatch between those notables they interacted with and the angry voices they heard on TV channels? Did the media (or, at least a section of it) have a collateral agenda? However, there was a bigger worry. How have recent developments affected the political prospects of the designated heir apparent? Was the scripted future of Indian politics going awry?

 The panic is understandable. Like the markets, foreign governments and their intelligence agencies hate unpredictability. None of them had factored in the possibility (not even after the Jantar Mantar street party last April) that the UPA Government would be jolted by a middle class uprising against corruption. Their calculation was that while the Congress was vulnerable at the state level, a disoriented and fractious BJP would be in no position to challenge the status quo nationally. Consequently, they had devoted all their energies in cultivating the young inheritors in the Congress and the Gandhi scion they believed would lead India after 2014, if not earlier. Over the past week, they are asking themselves a simple question: did we miscalculate?

 Diplomats, being relatively more transparent, are asking a question that, for Congress leaders, is a concern they dare not spell out openly. Instead, the alarm over the unexpected turn in politics is being concealed in an inoffensive we-miss-Sonia message. But the implication of yearning for the party president whose whereabouts and state of health is covered by the Official Secrets Act is obvious. When Congress General Secretary Janardan Dwivedi told a stunned country that Sonia Gandhi would be out of action for some time, he also announced the Amar-Akbar-Antony team that would help Rahul Gandhi steer the Congress ship. The buzz in Congress circles at that time was that it was only a matter of time before Rahul was anointed Working President of the Congress, a prelude to the eventual assumption of complete political responsibility. The more gung-ho elements even suggested that it was only a matter of time before the unreal system of dyarchy was junked altogether because opinion polls had suggested that Rahul was the most popular choice for the PMs post.

 Unfortunately, no one in the Congress had calculated that the ship would run into choppy waters immediately. What they had also not foreseen was that in this moment of crisis Rahul would retreat into disoriented inactivity. The only evidence of Rahul’s involvement in the 12-day fire-fighting was the School Captain’s Prize Day speech he read out at Zero Hour in the Lok Sabha.

Very modestly, Rahul described his intervention as the ‘game changer’. Tragically for him, the game refused to change and it was left to Pranab Mukherjee and Salman Khurshid, with some help from the BJP, to try and salvage the situation. By then, Rahul was on a flight to some unknown foreign destination. The palpable disappointment with Rahul’s leadership potential—and the cluelessness of the babalog brigade that constitute his cheerleaders—has unnerved the Congress.

The Prime Minister may not have emerged from the August storm looking perfect but in a relative sense, compared to Rahul, he has emerged smelling of roses. Far from dyarchy being a liability, the Congress has to thank Manmohan Singh that the revolt of the middle class didn’t spiral out of control. Had an inexperienced Rahul been at the helm, it is entirely possible that spontaneous outburst of anger would not have been so regulated.

The Congress has become a private limited company owned by the Gandhi family. Confronted by the limitations of the heir apparent, it is in a state of denial. Yet the reality is apparent to everyone. The next few weeks will witness a determined bid by the Congress to salvage the reputation of its first family. This could trigger a bout of political adventurism at a time India can least afford it.

 Sunday Pioneer, September 4, 2011

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