Thursday, October 20, 2011

Protests fail, politics win

By Swapan Dasgupta

The only talking point the Congress had after its ignominious performance in the by-election to the Hissar parliamentary by-election was that the last minute campaign by Anna Hazare’s followers contributed little to the final outcome. For all its national impact during Hazare’s fast last August, the India against Corruption’s ability to influence electoral politics still remains untested—the movement curiously desisted from directly intervening in the by-election to the Kharakvasla Assembly constituency in Maharashtra. Consequently, the only definite conclusion that can be drawn from the Congress’ spate of by-election debacles is that anti-incumbency has benefited the principal anti-Congress parties.

The ferocity of anti-Congress feelings is something that should hearten the national opposition, particularly the BJP which sees itself as leading a future non-Congress dispensation. However, far from being encouraged by the trends, the BJP has given the impression of being exultant. So gung-ho is the mood in a section of the BJP that it is acting on the belief that the next general election has already been won and that the remaining fight is over who should occupy the Prime Minister’s post.

This strikes me as a classic case of irrational exuberance. If the political timetable remains unaltered, the next general election is due in May 2014, some 30 months away. In other words, there is still ample time for either the BJP to score self-goals and neutralise its present advantage or for the Congress to recover lost ground by providing the country with purposeful governance. Using analogy borrowed from the United States, what we are witnessing at present is just a run-up to the primaries, not even the primaries themselves.

Of course, the timetable could well be redrawn in the event of an abrupt collapse of the UPA Government. L.K. Advani has been making noises to that effect and, last week, even Mayawati joined in the public speculation over the longevity of a government that is lurching directionless from crisis to crisis.

Unfortunately for the Opposition, the scenario of abrupt collapse appears to be a case of wishful thinking. First, if the odds are heavily stacked against the ruling coalition, it is extremely unlikely that its MPs will be tempted to do anything rash. Secondly, and despite Sharad Pawar’s public criticism of the Government’s handling of the 2-G scandal, there is no evidence that either the DMK or Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (the two largest coalition partners) want to travel an alternative route. The DMK would prefer to keep its toehold at the Centre after the drubbing in Tamil Nadu; and Mamata, while fiercely independent in all matters concerning West Bengal, wouldn’t like to lose the considerable patronage powers the Indian Railways offer. Finally, and this is true for all entities going through a bad patch, the Congress is permanently hopeful that tomorrow. “Just wait for the Uttarakhand and Punjab polls” is a line frequently heard in Congress circles.

Barring an accident, a mid-term parliamentary election in 2012 looks extremely unlikely—and this is regardless of the outcome in next year’s state elections. By stressing the likelihood of an abrupt collapse some BJP leaders are ending up looking desperate. The hunger for power is regarded as a positive attribute for politicians in the so-called advanced democracies. In India, however, thanks to the distorting effects of Gandhian thought, the craving to be in government is perceived as something perverse and immoral. The anti-politician mood generated by Anna Hazare’s movement, particularly in the youth, has only served to heighten the revulsion for ‘power-hungry’ netas.

Advani failed to read this particular graffiti on the wall before embarking on his Jan Chetna yatra—a reason why the venture lacked punch. However, more important, by putting his prime ministerial ambition on public view, he made the one mistake an opposition party must avoid: shifting the gaze from the government to itself. Unless there is a profound ideological point that is being made—as happened during Advani’s Ram rath yatra in 1990—it is prudent for any ‘centrist’ opposition to keep the spotlight firmly on the government.

This may seem heretical to those in the saffron ranks intent on creating a Hindu version of the Tea Party movement by courting the outrageous. However, the sheer complexities of India and the uneven presence of the national parties throughout India negate the virtues of a conviction politician. Coalition politics is not necessarily a fig leaf for venality—as has happened in the UPA—but it is a trigger for the politics of aggregation. The major shifts in policy orientation by governments have rarely happened as a result on a resounding electoral endorsement. The people have been inclined to elect a government and then leave them alone to exercise the wisest policy option. Electoral politics, as opposed to the process of governance, has rarely been ideological.

At one time it seemed that the shortcoming of the BJP (and NDA) could lie in not projecting a leader to counter Rahul Gandhi. Today, as the heir apparent too struggles to overcome the anti-incumbency against the Congress, the inability or unwillingness to make the next election a presidential contest well turn out to be a significant advantage. The lesson from Hissar is that the traditional mould of Indian politics is broadly intact, despite Anna Hazare and a shrill electronic media. For the opposition, the real challenge is to keep its nerve for the next 30 months. 

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