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Hitting the bottom

MJ Akbar, September 9, 2013:

Livy, the ancient historian, records the remarkable story of Cincinnatus, whose memory has been reduced to an academic fringe instead of being made compulsory reading for politicians. In 458 BC, Rome was threatened by the Sabines and Aequi.

Cincinnatus was ploughing his fields when summoned to public service. Appointed dictator, he defeated the invading tribes, distributed booty among his troops, and returned to his field, where the plough was precisely where he had left it. That was unsurprising. He had been dictator for only 15 days.

Be it noted that no other dictator or ruler of Rome and its subsequent empire displayed such exemplary virtue. The idea that there is serenity and fulfilment in some pursuit other than power is alien to the powerful. Only 28 of the 130-odd emperors of Rome died from old age or illness. Most arrived by the sword, and died by it. Political nature craves the pomp of office, and is terrified by the loneliness of retirement.

The only instance of a powerful Indian minister voluntarily giving up office is that of Lal Bahadur Shastri, when he was railways minister. Six decades later, when accidents are the norm rather an exception, the principle seems quaint if not foolish. The present Parliament would run out of MPs to promote if ministers were held accountable.

Jawaharlal Nehru was the only prime minister who contemplated retirement — at the pinnacle of his success in 1957, rather than when in the depths after defeat after the 1962 war with China. Nehru’s reasons were so human they seem extraordinary: he wanted to read, write and spend time with his family. He was easily persuaded to remain. Every political story, it is said, ends in tragedy. Nehru’s came in 1962.

But surely political compulsion has not disappeared from politics. Opinion polls confirm visual and anecdotal evidence that prime minister Manmohan Singh has sunk from asset to liability. This is an extraordinary fall, given the levels of popularity he enjoyed in 2009. Perhaps he raised hopes too high, and there was nowhere he could go after that but down.

But the facts have hardened to a point where they are unlikely to change. Narendra Modi is way ahead with 47 per cent support in the contest for the prime minister’s post, according to an ABP News poll; Rahul Gandhi gets only a diehard 18 per cent and Singh is not really in the picture.

The gap between parties is equally disturbing, if you happen to be a Congress loyalist: the BJP gets 36 per cent support versus 22 per cent for the Congress. Bear in mind that the BJP base is narrower, so this support will have more depth where it exists.

Pause and correction

Our parliamentary system gives ruling parties a chance for pause and correction in such a crisis; they can change a prime minister without losing a government. Sheila Dikshit would have been an excellent replacement, filling both the administrative and political vacuum created by the second UPA government. Why does the Congress persist with the status quo? There must be an invisible reason amenable to logic. Sonia Gandhi will not consider any successor other than Rahul Gandhi, and he is incapable, in his own mind, of stepping up to the plate.

So, the Congress strategy remains concentrated upon using every mechanism to try and destroy the BJP’s nominee for the top job rather than doing what it can to build Rahul Gandhi as a leader who can deliver us out of this mess. This can be counter-productive.

The voter has probably factored in all the negatives about Modi, and then made a decision. There is nothing substantive to add to the narrative of responsibility for the Gujarat riots. But if the public persona of Rahul Gandhi remains static, or uncertain, then the Congress argument will be wispy when the moment arrives for electoral battle.

Confusion would be worse. If the Congress leaves the question unanswered, it will be vulnerable to an affliction that has traditionally been an Opposition malady. Both age and record rule out  Singh as a candidate for a third term. The only way to woo a sceptical electorate is to establish what Rahul Gandhi stands for, rather than fudge what he is hiding from.

In 2009 Singh was a much younger man than he is today; he has aged more than a decade in less than five years. He looked positive and confident during his first press conference after the re-election. He dispatched the inevitable question about Rahul Gandhi promptly. He was ready to step down, he said, whenever Rahul Gandhi wanted the job. Everyone smiled and carried on.

But if  Singh had stepped aside in late 2009 or any time in 2010, there would have been, today, a nationwide clamour demanding his return. His first five years would have been praised as a golden spell, equivalent to the 15 days during which Cincinnatus destroyed the nation’s enemies and made Rome the springboard of unprecedented future glory.
But Singh preferred a palace to the ploughing field.


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