The fulcrum of a tipping point in public life is that mortal enemy of a politician: humour. A joke might not destroy reputation quite as effectively as a corruption scandal, but it deflates credibility. Through his long career Defence Minister A.K. Antony has been wise enough never to get tempted by a wisecrack; wit is not his forte. He might therefore be a little bewildered by the artillery fire of jokes after his disastrous mismanagement of the border incident in which five Indian soldiers lost their lives. Such humour has a memory. The voter will remember "Pakistan has two deadly weapons: AK-47 and A.K. Antony".
If it is any consolation to Antony, jokes about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi are far more harsh. As we leap-frog our way towards another general election, Congress might discover that its biggest problem is ridicule.
It does not matter now when the next general election is held. We are in the last chapter of a drama that has gone on too long. The life of this government is over; dreaming of resurrection on a deathbed is a waste of time. For most of this term, policy was lost in a swamp. Now, decisions are made to serve as slogans.
If Congress had truly believed in Telangana, it would have completed the process three years ago, used this time to absorb reaction and respond by showcasing the practical merits of its decision. An announcement now is mercenary: to milk the environment for what votes it can bring, and postpone ensuing problems. The timing is determined not by advantage to the people but by thoughts of benefit to the party.
But politics is not a parlour game, even when the parlour is as charming as one in a spacious Delhi bungalow. All that Telangana has managed to achieve so far is to split the Congress, spur rage on the Andhra street, and provide more fodder to separatist banners. The dispute over Telangana has generated a dispute over Hyderabad. The second can become as chronic as the first. What was intended as a win-win situation could become a lose-lose scenario.
Likewise, nothing stopped UPA from passing food security legislation in the first six months of its second term, rather than the last six months, except fear that implementation would expose inadequacies of the project. Congress spin-masters still believe that this will help revive a formula that was brilliantly effective in a year when most of the present electorate was not born: 1971. Mrs Indira Gandhi won a tremendous victory that year with a simple proposition: Woh kehte hain Indira hatao, main kehti hoon garibi hatao [They (meaning those opposed to her) say remove Indira, I say remove poverty].
All that Telangana has managed to achieve so far is to split the Congress, spur rage on the Andhra street, and provide more fodder to separatist banners. What was intended as a win-win situation could become a lose-lose scenario.
A promise is only as good as the worth of its trust. In 1971, Mrs Indira Gandhi was not enveloped by the odour of corruption, including within her own family. The poor believed that she would usher in an Indian version of socialism that would end their misery. No one laughed at Mrs Indira Gandhi, or indeed her defence minister, except at his own peril. There are other reasons for scepticism. Congress has been in power for three of the four decades since 1971, in sustained spells rather than the sporadic bursts of V.P. Singh, Chandrashekhar, Deve Gowda or Inder Gujral. Indira Gandhi's promise is still a dream.
Every election is another gate towards the future, not a backdoor to the past. We must solve inherited problems, of course, the most important of which is surely poverty. But this needs an economic programme that takes change forward in quantum leaps, not throwaway sops. In 2009, UPA won handsome endorsement because voters believed that if it got five more years, it would create a new India. Five years have passed. We are staring instead at a very old India, one we imagined we had shed in the folds of the past, weighed down with cynicism, its middle class ill with angst rather than alive with the vibrant optimism that was the story of the first decade of this century.
The dark side of today's political satire is the evil of corruption. There is a school within the ruling establishment selling the theory that corruption as an election issue has been deflected. This is delusion. The voter is not going to be finessed by the argument that all politicians are corrupt, and so theft of the present lot should be condoned. A jury can punish only the person in the dock, and the present government is on trial in the next electoral court.
Jokes are the evidence and the argument in this trial; the voter is both lawyer and judge in the court of the people. But there is some good news for those on trial. The maximum sentence is just five years in wilderness. The next five years will pass as quickly as the last five.