Politicians fear the law, as indeed they should. But what truly terrifies them is the great hall of justice known as the court of public opinion. A court trial may be no more than an occupational hazard; the law, moreover, is known to take its own course, particularly when like an ass it defeats its own purpose through delay. But public opinion, while it may take a while to reach the crescendo of judgement, is unwavering. It is also relentless, delivering an unsentimental sentence every five years or less through a set democratic framework.
The Madras High Court has decreed that Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram must go on trial for electoral malpractice and fraud, allegedly committed during the counting process during the 2009 general elections. But the jury of public opinion has been ahead of the legal system. Chidambaram cannot win the next election from his constituency, Sivaganga.
Hence the paradox which his party refuses to recognise for reasons that must remain in the realm of speculation. Whenever opportunity beckons, Opposition parties demand the resignation of Chidambaram from Cabinet. But they never really mean it. Chidambaram is far more useful to them as home minister than as a backbench MP ploughing his old trade as lawyer. If there is one senior minister who has helped Opposition parties return from 2009's precipice of despair, then it is Chidambaram. Telangana is only the best-known of his catalogue of bungles. So when the Congress leadership protects Chidambaram, and keeps him in office against advice of common sense, the Opposition moans publicly and rejoices privately. It never pushes its protest beyond a point. Why should it help Congress heal a bleeding nose?
Every twist and turn of Chidambaram's election trial will provide fresh fodder to a ravenous media. Reporters will wade through a leaking administration for evidence that Chidambaram is using his considerable influence to soften or manipulate the case against him. The drama will drip continuously onto front pages and evening television bulletins. If Chidambaram were dropped from Cabinet, interest would fade and there might even rise a feeling that he had paid his price. Any further hounding by newshounds would be dismissed as typical of a hyper media that had not learnt when to stop.
If there is one senior minister who has helped Opposition parties return from 2009’s precipice of despair, then it is Chidambaram. Telangana is only the best-known of his catalogue of bungles.
The third summer of a second term is normally slow season. Either a government is, by then, drifting towards irrelevance or, equally slowly, making its alternative irrelevant. Summer is not a season for hurry. This year's summer however has been turbulent. Astrologers, including the very few not in the pay of any politician, have been quick to suggest that the planets are in turmoil and their cascades are churning events on earth. But there are simpler explanations. Misjudgement by the Congress high command is among them.
But since we are Indians, the confluence of stars has to take some of the blame. In an extraordinary case of bad luck for the Congress, its most agile asset, Pranab Mukherjee, could move away from the political chessboard before the end of June towards a higher perch, and its biggest liability, Chidambaram, remain stuck in a corner like a castle that has lost its mobility. Personal reasons have forced Mrs Sonia Gandhi to leave India at a time when Congress must announce its candidate for President of India. Technically, this need not be done before the third week of June, but political wisdom suggests that it is dangerous to float in fog, even if the fog has been artificially engineered. You never know when you might hit a wall called Mulayam Singh Yadav. Without clear passage from Yadav a Congress candidate could crash in an accident and send the government to hospital.
The safest Congress choice is surely Pranab Mukherjee. Mrs Sonia Gandhi is simply not strong enough politically to take too many risks. That would mean shifting away the man who runs government and resuming play with injured pieces. The only way to keep Mukherjee in play is by sending Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Rashtrapati Bhavan and replacing him with Pranab. This would, however, entail a radical shift in strategy. At the very least Mukherjee would want to replace knights, bishops and horses who he believes have become jaded or started out as intellectually effete. He knows that he cannot shift the tide of public opinion with the same tired faces. And he does not relish the thought of being remembered as a loser.
We do not know what will happen by the time this dangerous month of June slips away into the past. But we do know that indecision is no longer an option. Chidambaram may go on trial in legal court, but the Congress-led government is also being publicly tried through an ebb and flow of daily evidence and argument. It is the second judgement that will get a chapter in history books; the first will only merit a sentence or two in a footnote.