It’s 11 o’clock

It’s 11 o’clock

By M.J. Akbar | 30 March, 2013
The Congress problem in the run-up to 2014 will not be the BJP, but allies who have drifted into negative territory.

Arithmetic obviously matters, for democracy is a game of numbers. But there is a smarter way for a minority government to ensure stability: good governance.

Dr Manmohan Singh has the requisite experience, for he was P.V. Narasimha Rao's finance minister between 1991 and 1996. Rao never had the numbers but survived five years on the trot. He stumbled just once, on 6 December 1992, the day Rao deliberately sleepwalked through the destruction of the Babri mosque, inducing a minor Congress revolt. Rao understood Congress far better than Congress understood him. He purchased Congressmen in the only currency they recognised: power. The pseudo-rebels happily clambered over Babri's stones and into ministerial office.

The broad rule has not changed. BJP has held on to numbers in Karnataka, but poor governance has left the party broken and aimless in Bangalore. It will pay a price in the next Assembly elections.

The present UPA coalition did not spring a leak when Mamata Banerjee punctured its hull a year ago, or when Karunanidhi punched a hole a fortnight ago, or Mulayam Singh Yadav began to sneer a week ago. This ship of state was lost when corruption drove it off-course, beginning with inflated Commonwealth Games' bills and then onto telecom handouts on a spectrum scale, sleazy coal-mine allocations and Italian helicopter bribes.

Karunanidhi used alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka to distance himself from Congress, but the real reason is that he believes Congress has become an electoral liability.

Mulayam Singh Yadav has shifted from proximity to uncertainty for similar reasons. Veterans like Yadav and Karunanidhi are graduates of the old school of demand, barter and concession. You never quite know which of the three is in the air. They can drag out a decision, maximizing space for manoeuvre in marriage and insisting on heavy alimony in divorce. Even when you think you have heard the final word, they leave a little wiggle room for a flexible narrative. They can make the process acrimonious.

The UPA ship of state was lost when corruption drove it off-course, beginning with inflated Commonwealth Games’ bills and then onto telecom handouts on a spectrum scale.

Karunanidhi's intentions were clear when former Telecom Minister A. Raja publicly sought to give evidence before the Joint Parliamentary Committee investigating the 2G case in which he is principal accused. Congress stopped Raja because it knew Raja would accuse the PM and then Finance Minister Chidambaram of being party to his decisions, generating unwelcome headlines. Raja had clearance from Karunanidhi.

Congress policy towards allies has so far been cool. It acts on the assumption that since they cannot ally with BJP, they have nowhere else to go, and will therefore accept any terms set by Congress. This increases their options, without raising their liability. If Mamata leaves, Mulayam arrives; when DMK creates trouble, Nitish Kumar can be brought into play. But polygamy can save you only up to a point. The problem is that partnership has lost credibility, even as a clock reminds you that the countdown has started and risk has begun to outweigh reward.

Dr Manmohan Singh, an astute reader of moods within the Lok Sabha, may well be right when he says that his government will last till its appointed hour. What is more to the point is that it is 11 o'clock already. As Yadav remarked, "Why withdraw [support to UPA] and make the government fall when it is just a matter of eight or nine months?" He is right. If UPA is defeated in Lok Sabha, the elections will be held in December; if this dead government is permitted to continue walking, elections will be held in March. Not that big a deal. Withdrawing support only adds an unnecessary controversy to an election which will be fought on corruption, inflation and poor governance. Bringing the UPA down now is tantamount to doing Congress a favour.

Congress has no reason to worry about a vote in the House. It should however be worried about the war of attrition that has already begun. Congress cannot dismiss Trinamool, SP and DMK as generically hostile, like the BJP; Mamata Banerjee, Yadav and Karunanidhi had inside seats in this circus. The Congress problem in the run-up to 2014 will not be the BJP, but allies who have drifted into negative territory. Congress spokespersons have developed a well-honed combination of loud counterattack and sneers whenever they are attacked. This will not be effective against parties which kept Congress in power through the trauma of corruption charges and the rough passage of decisions like FDI.

The story of the past year has been the isolation of Congress, a dramatic reversal from the situation in 2009, when parties were offering support without getting their ratio of office space in government. However, it is not very difficult to diagnose what is happening in Delhi now. Congress is engrossed in how to survive till March 2014; its allies are worried about how to survive after the next general elections.

Very simple, really.


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