Digvijay's agenda

Digvijay's agenda

In-house dissident

Sanyas obviously means different things to different people. In 2003, soon after losing the Madhya Pradesh elections, Digvijay Singh rather dramatically announced, “I have decided to take political sanyas for the next ten years.”

Eight years later, far from living the life of renunciation, the Congress leader appears to be making headlines every other day. Remind him about his claim of taking sanyas, and the impish smile returns: “When I said sanyas I meant that I would not seek any government post for ten years. Have I been a minister or do I hold any official position in government?”

Minister he may be not, but there is little doubt that Digvijay Singh is now a power centre within the complex UPA-Congress equation. In a sense, the two time Madhya Pradesh chief minister is to UPA 2 what the Left was to Manmohan Singh’s first government: the opposition within. In the first UPA avatar, the Left would openly red flag any issue which they felt would hurt their political ideology: be it the Indo-US nuclear deal or public sector privatisation. In UPA 2, its been left to Digvijay Singh to play that adversarial role: be it the Naxal policy, land acquisition or anti-terror laws, the Congress general secretary has been determinedly pursuing what appears to be a contrarian agenda to that of the UPA government, often creating dissonance within the ruling arrangement, quite apart from providing fodder to a ravenous media.

And yet, there is clearly a method to the seeming madness of what appears to be Digvijay’s role of in-house dissident. For many traditional Congressmen, Manmohan Singh is still the ‘outsider,’ the lateral entrant whose reform-friendly economist avatar is not quite what a party system based on populist hand-outs is comfortable with. Digvijay’s rhetoric appeals to the old style Congressman, more familiar with slogans rather than policy prescriptions.

Take Digvijay’s remarks on Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare. By calling Ramdev a ‘thug’ and suggesting that Hazare was an RSS agent, he has brought in a ‘saffron’ edge to the debate over the anti-corruption agitation. By questioning the government’s action in sending cabinet ministers to the airport to receive the yoga guru, he has virtually accused it of compromising with religious babas of questionable credentials. In the process, he has sought to reinforce his own identity as a ‘secular fundamentalist’ whose politics revolve around being the matador who is constantly getting under the skin of the sangh parivar bull.

As a result, after the Gandhi family, Digvijay is now political Hindutva’s hate figure number one. Whether on social media sites like Twitter or at public rallies, Digvijay has now become a favourite whipping boy for the saffron brotherhood, a classic exemplar of what they see as Congress pseudo-secularism.

Religious extremism

Digvijay has defended himself by claiming that he has resisted all forms of religious extremism: that as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, he arrested VHP leader Praveen Togadia and also acted against minority extremist groups. And yet, he cannot shake off the popular middle class perception of being a leader who is ‘appeasing’ the minorities.

After all, when you rail against a Sadhvi Pragya but refer to Osama Bin Laden as Osamaji, you are asking to be labelled as a pseudo-secularist. Perhaps, that’s an image which suits Digvijay in the contemporary political context. The classic Congress worldview has been that the key to winning elections is the strong support of minorities: be it Muslims, dalits or adivasis.

The Congress’ electoral struggles over the last two decades across north India have been primarily because the party has lost the support of precisely these social groups. As an astute politician who is now in charge of the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, Digvijay knows that any Congress revival is predicated on a Muslim-dalit alliance on the ground.

While the dalits have been significantly empowered by Mayawati, the Muslims remain vulnerable to emotional appeals that address their  insecurities over being targeted for their religious status. Digvijay is attempting to tap into precisely these feelings every time he dares the sangh parivar.

But in the age of 8 per cent economic growth, identity politics of the Muslim-Mandal variety does have its limits. We are slowly inching forward from the politics of grievance to the politics of aspiration. Fear and division cannot be the basis of a new India politics.

‘Inclusiveness’ is the new mantra, which means that old style politics of community consolidation is losing out to good governance and bijli-sadak-pani. Neither can the BJP win elections by promising to build a Ram mandir in Ayodhya, nor can the Congress win by simply raising the Hindutva bogie at election time. Perhaps, Digvijay knows this, but he also knows that giving it up would mean losing out on his political USP.

Post-script: There is one X factor in Digvijay Singh’s political ambitions, namely the man who he has pitched for as India’s next leader, Rahul Gandhi. We know little of Rahul’s politics, but they broadly seem to parallel the left of centre vision of Digvijay. If in 2014, Rahul chooses not to take up the Congress leadership, will he look for his own Manmohan to drive his agenda? By 2014, the ten years of Diggy Raja’s ‘sanyas’ could be well and truly over.

(The writer is editor-in-chief, IBN 18)

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