Saturday, October 01, 2011

Congress 'crisis' is a tamasha

By Swapan Dasgupta

If “crisis” is exclusively a media invention, as many Congress stalwarts have insisted over the past week, India’s ruling dispensation has demonstrated that it takes amateur choreography to demonstrate normalcy.

What was witnessed on the forecourt of the Finance Ministry in North Block last Thursday afternoon should have put a rookie event manager to shame. There was a visibly angry Finance Minister (whose fuse keeps getting shorter with each passing day) reading out a terse statement, flanked by three extras in white apparel who weren’t sure whether they were meant to look amused or sombre. Just as he had finished bawling out his lines, out stepped the Home Minister in white and said his pre-rehearsed two sentences about accepting the FM’s statement. Then it was quick about-turn and no insolent or stupid questions please.

By the evening, the scrolls on news channels were proclaiming that the “crisis” was over and that the civil war in the Congress had ended, without a single head rolling—thanks, predictably, to the wisdom and perspicacity of the Congress President whose wish is her servants’ command.

There are important lessons from the Indian farce enacted on top of Rasina Hill.

First, that despite the great advances in the so-called science of ‘spin’ doctoring and choreography, political management remains embedded in improvisation or ‘jugaad’. This is true for the entire political class. The BJP, for example, spent the first day of their National Executive session last Friday trying to explain the absence of Narendra Modi in terms of his dietary preferences during Navaratra. 

Secondly, the political class find the whole business of having to be accountable to TV viewers and, by implication, to the electorate, an unwanted intrusion into the world of parlour politics. The underlying message of the amateur theatrics last Thursday—Kapil Sibal would certainly have livened things up more had he been given a speaking role—was simple: ‘crisis is over because we say it is over. And that’s that.’ I doubt if the intention of the Pranab-PC duet was to reassure Indians that governance is back on track and that they could slay Ravana on Dusserah day with a clear mind. The one-point objective was to drive the ‘Notegate’ controversy out of the front pages and headlines.

Finally, the spectacular ease with which this limited objective was achieved—by Friday afternoon the excitable media had deemed that 2-G belonged to the ages—should call into question the editorial judgment of much of the Fourth Estate. It is not necessarily that there is a conspiracy theory to explain such exemplary mindlessness. By next week, the 2-G scam and the fate of the Home Minister may well be back as the subject of shrieking bouts—if the prognosis of lawyer Harish Salve is anything to go by. The point to note is that the media suffers a huge Attention Deficiency Disorder and can be easily beguiled by amateur dramatics into losing sight of the big picture.

Fortunately, the country is inhabited by ‘normal’ people, as opposed to activists and newshounds—an important distinction Tony Blair made in his autobiography. For them, the issue is not really about the emergence of a mysterious note that came into the public domain following a RTI application but that an already crippled government was rushed into the ICU because two of the most senior ministers were seen to be in a slugfest. It provided further evidence of incoherence in a government that for all practical purposes has stopped governing.

To gauge the extent of disarray does not demand an intimate knowledge of rocket science. The Congress leadership is as aware of this as the harried Man from Matunga struggling to cope with soaring inflation and crippling interest rates for his EMI. The question therefore arises: why isn’t the government being able to get its act together? Why is it blundering from one crisis to another?

The questions are worth a thought because non-performance isn’t an attribute any government likes to be burdened with. In similar situations in the rest of the democratic world, ruling parties have sought a way out of the impasse by a leadership change. A new leader, it is generally assumed, will create a wall of separation between the past and the present. 

After 2009, the Congress also believed that sooner or later the Regency of Manmohan Singh would end and enable the monarchy to once again come into its own. The chatter about the “youth icon” and opinion poll findings about the most popular choice as PM were aimed at setting the stage for a non-contentious transition from Singh to Gandhi. What is remarkable is the rapidity with which a sense of anticipation has evaporated after the Anna Hazare fasts and the non-role of the heir designate in the crisis management process.

The ensuing silence is revealing. It suggests escalating scepticism over the viability of any transition at this juncture. At the same time, there is a realisation that for all his other attributes, the PM is losing his grip on the situation. To the Congress, a change is clearly desirable but there is no one who looks like being an effective successor. In any case, an effective non-dynasty successor would put dynastic claimants in the shade. And that isn’t acceptable to the party.

It is this conundrum that is at the heart of a ‘crisis’ that resembles a tamasha. 

Sunday Pioneer, October 2, 2011

No comments: