The high price of being a friend

The high price of being a friend

By M.J. Akbar | 10 July, 2011
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Home Minister P. Chidambaram attend an all party meeting in New Delhi last week. The Congress has in the last two years managed to revive the BJP

In a curious surge of counterintuitive energy, the Congress has in the last two years managed to revive the BJP and either destroy or alienate everyone who helped it come to power in 2004 and 2009. The principal party pillars holding up UPA 1 were DMK and Lalu Prasad Yadav's RJD, who between them gave the alliance nearly 60 seats. Both are shattered. Congress can, and does, argue that both DMK and RJD are paying for their own sins, both venal and political. But such logic has only surface appeal. Their venality did not prevent Congress from taking their support when it was needed for a majority in the Lok Sabha. Both allies have been used and then left to twist in the wind when the weather changed.

Congress leaders, including those at the very top, knew precisely what then Telecommunications Minister A. Raja was doing when allotting spectrum. Let alone the fact that Raja had informed them, newspapers published every detail on their front pages. They could have intervened even after the letters of intent were issued on 10 January 2008; Raja's intentions could have been thwarted by minimal intervention. Raja's desperation to retain his portfolio [as detailed in the Radia tapes] was not due to any exotic love for cutting-edge technology, but because of the eggs that a golden goose was delivering. DMK leaders insist that the spectrum decision was taken in consultation with the Congress, and they have the documents to prove this.

Lalu Yadav was abandoned because the Congress thought that it could capture the demographic space he occupied in Bihar. It was a miscalculation, but the game is not over. Votaries of realpolitik admire the Congress because it wastes little sentiment on politics. Look at the array of smiling faces in the UPA coalitions as they posed for photographs in the summer of 2004 and 2009, from the Left, from the Socialist middle, from the regional parties, and check how many are still smiling. Mulayam Singh Yadav feels betrayed, because he has been, not once but often. Mayawati is fuming, and does not hide her rage. Sharad Pawar is in a swamp, unwilling to get out, and unable to prevent the slow but inexorable sink. The Left has become faceless, although it would not be quite right to blame Congress for this development.

The principal internal Congress pillar was Y. Rajashekhar Reddy, who turned Andhra Pradesh into a party fortress. Andhra MPs formed the backbone of the Congress Legislature Party in the Lok Sabha. Andhra was the fulcrum of Congress revival. If Chandrababu Naidu had held on to his state, the Congress would not have been in power in Delhi. Reddy's sudden death left a deep void which his son Jagan claimed as his inheritance. Mrs Sonia Gandhi could have easily accommodated Jagan's aspirations. She did not. She can hardly argue that dynastic succession is good for Delhi but bad for Hyderabad. Congress has driven out the one person who could have, in the tragic and emotional circumstances of an accidental death, saved the party. The consequences are visible in each day's headlines. Mrs Gandhi thought that actor-politician Chiranjeevi would provide sufficient electoral compensation, and accepted him into Congress. Since that day Chiranjeevi's worth is being whittled, scratch by scratch. Chiranjeevi is learning a lesson every Congressman knows by heart: only a very very thick skin can survive the constant scrape of the knife.

Dropcap OnThe BJP, on the other hand, seems astir even if not fully awake. The lotus may not be in bloom yet, but it has stopped wilting. Rising prices and relentless exposes of corruption have shifted the voter away from the ruling alliance; some of the drift is towards the BJP. Madhya Pradesh is the swing state. The Congress did well there in 2009, and if it had maintained the trend, Madhya Pradesh could have swung out of the BJP parish. But last month Congress lost one of its safest Assembly seats, held by the previous Leader of Opposition. Congress swept Rajasthan in 2009; within two years it seems as if the next sweep will be by the BJP brush. Nor is there much recovery for the Congress in Gujarat despite the long BJP incumbency. The only states where Congress has reason for optimism are Punjab and Orissa, where the regional ruling parties are beginning to fade. Congress had a massive opportunity in Karnataka, but has been unable to fully exploit it.

The pattern seems consistent in good times or bad. Lalu Yadav and the Left, for different reasons, could not survive partnership with Congress during UPA 1; DMK and Pawar have discovered the difficult terms of endearment during UPA 2.

Indian politics would be incomplete without the profusion of wagging tongues. The latest advice of Delhi wags to satellites in the Congress constellation is uncomplicated: If you want to survive, learn to oppose. That is why Mamata Banerjee keeps her distance from Delhi, and handles the Bengal Congress at arm's length.


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