Opinion and Editorial

Inflation hits Delhi politics

M J Akbar (Byline)
Filed on July 21, 2008

IT WAS as easy to esteem Chaudhry Charan Singh as to underestimate him. I knew him reasonably well during the critical days when he brought down the Janata government in 1979 and won the undying contempt of urban India which had invested so much passion in the first non-Congress government in Delhi. At one level he had charming simplicity. There was nothing he enjoyed more, after work, than playing ludo with his wife.

But he also had a sharp self-interest in the rural, Jat-dominated constituency of west Uttar Pradesh. Since he was the pre-eminent leader of the Jats, the line between individual and collective was often blurred. In his mind, what was good for rural India was good for him, which is fair enough; but the reverse held equally true. What was good for him became ipso facto good for rural India. He had the rustic virtue of trust; but in the end he became a victim of the rustic vice of naiveté.

He broke the Morarji Desai government and became Prime Minister on the basis of support offered by Mrs Indira Gandhi. But the Congress stabbed him in the back soon after he stabbed Morarji Desai in the front. Mrs Gandhi withdrew support, and Chaudhry Charan Singh became the first, and only, Prime Minister who could not summon a session of Parliament.

Three decades later, in one of those U-turns for which history is famous, his son Ajit Singh's single-digit strength in Parliament could help keep Mrs Gandhi's daughter-in-law, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, in power. A sweetener has been spread before Ajit Singh. Lucknow airport has been named after his father. There are many reasons for remembering Charan Singh. This is possibly the worst. His name is now inextricably linked to a political bribe.

Given the track record, Ajit Singh should not be surprised if the airport is renamed again if things do not go as expected.

If a lollipop was sufficient to appease Ajit Singh, he would have announced his support to Dr Manmohan Singh's nuclear deal without any delay. His hesitation and willingness to socialise with distinctly anti-nuclear deal politicians indicate that he has a little more on his shopping list. Since his political outfit is confined to west Uttar Pradesh, he can never become Chief Minister unless he carves out a separate state. He wants a new one to be called Harit Pradesh.

Shibu Soren from Jharkhand, with five MPs, is demanding a place in the Cabinet with the lucrative coal portfolio, currently in the hands of a Congress fundraiser. Soren was dropped from Manmohan Singh's Cabinet for a fairly dramatic reason. He was accused of being involved in a secretary's murder. He has been exonerated and wants his job back, with some back pay if possible.

The Telangana Rashtra Samiti wanted a separate Telangana, and became anti-nuclear when there was no response from the Union government. We have already witnessed the blatant intervention of corporate interests in the survival of the government. The unedifying sight of convicted murderers turning up to save or scupper the nuclear deal will doubtless fuel editorials worldwide on the mature state of Indian democracy.

There is inflation in the political bazaar. Dr Manmohan Singh can now be held responsible for both economic and political inflation, a rare achievement. In such a volatile market, no sale is ever complete until delivery. Mulayam Singh promised 39 MPs. On Friday in Delhi only 26 MPs attended the party meeting. It is possible that some MPs may have been afflicted with Mayawati-induced stomach upsets, and a few with heartache; and they may indeed turn up to vote behind the leader on the evening of 22 July. Sometimes 72 hours can be even longer than a week in politics.

Given such intense bargaining, the price of victory for the government might be far higher than the temporary despair of defeat. There is already an SMS doing the rounds which does not make pleasant reading for those in power: "Wanted: convicts, murderers, mafia, jailbirds, criminals 2 vote 4 Trust Vote. Parties need u if u r any of the above. U will get CM's post, Ministership, airport named after ur father etc. Good citizens need not apply."

In times of meltdown, we thirst for a glimpse into the future, and track it along the seam lines of what politicians can do. There is a much surer way of finding out. Check out what politicians cannot do, and you will discover what they will do.

Eliminate the impossible, and the possible begins to define itself.

Sentiment has little to do with power play. Likes and dislikes mean very little at crunch time. Politics is about the protection and pursuit of interests. Of course self-serving politicians will always clothe self-interest in the garb of national interest, but that cloth has worn thin.

The Left could never accept a strategic alliance with the United States, which is at the heart of the proposed relationship. It is a concept in which India becomes the eastern fortress of the "New Middle East", an expanded arc that stretches from the Nile to the Ganges and includes all the volatile regions of the Muslim world in which America has a deep vested interest because of energy. America does not hide this interest.

India, including its waters, will become a region from which American forces can operate if they feel the need to do so. Obviously, this need will arise only rarely, but when it does India will be an undeclared base supporting forward operations. War is not only about fighting; it is also about logistics. The sop that is being thrown out by Dr Singh is that an American strategic alliance will create a balance of power between India and China.

Who is right is less relevant than the fact that these views are incompatible. The alliance, acceptable till the line was breached, is now untenable. Dr Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi want to leave an indelible American mark on the Congress Party, with consequences that will change the organisation's fundamental ethos completely. That is their privilege. A substantial section of the Congress does not agree, but is voiceless in a party where debate has been extinguished.

Mulayam Singh's decision to support the Congress has nothing to do with the nuclear deal. His compulsions are regional and personal. Mayawati has driven him out of power in the only state where he can be in power. Defeat has unnerved him. The Congress, bed-ridden but not quite dead, makes a perfect ally, because it is too frail to make an independent bid for power.

When it comes to a division of Uttar Pradesh's 80 seats, Mulayam Singh will bargain with bare knuckles. The Congress will be lucky if Mulayam offers the party ten seats and relents to 12. Local luminaries like Salman Khursheed could discover that they have been sliced out since Mulayam will not concede a constituency like Farrukhabad. Once the Congress moves out of 80 per cent of UP's seats it will never be able to return, for its remaining cadre will abandon the party. This suits Mulayam Singh even better, just as it suits Lalu Yadav in Bihar to restrict Congress to four or five seats. The Congress cannot revive if it sells long to buy short.

The short-term benefits for the Congress are dubious; the long term suggests disaster. The Congress will effectively eliminate itself from the spine of the nation, the Indo-Gangetic belt. If, five years or more later, the electorate tires of regional parties and seeks a national alternative, the only national party in Uttar Pradesh left standing will be the BJP.

Dr Manmohan Singh began with a majority of nearly a hundred. In four years, by becoming a one-point Bush-entranced Prime Minister, he has reduced that majority to a variable that could easily slip into a minority. We will soon see who wins the numbers game. What we do know already is that the government has lost its credibility.

M J Akbar is Chairman and Director of Publications, Covert

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