Shifting sands

Shifting sands

Congress dithers over policy pursuits

The dark night between the sunset of a government and the dawn of a new election is a good time for rumination. Aruna Roy, confidante of Sonia Gandhi and leading light of the most powerful NGO in India, the National Advisory Council, was struck so hard by the thunderbolt of revelation that she resigned. She now knows who sabotaged Sonia Gandhi's schemes to win an endearing place in the hearts of the poor: Manmohan Singh.

More remarkably, Sharad Pawar's NCP has suddenly discovered that finance minister P Chidambaram has been “squeezing the poor” and that "elements supporting laissez faire theory" have forgotten that 94 per cent of India lives outside the formal economy, according to a resolution passed by its youth wing. [The elderly wing of NCP was busy with cricket.] At least two elders have spent the last five years in the Singh Cabinet, nodding their heads dutifully at every decision. Maybe their juniors were reading Karl Marx at the same time. You never know. They should have been reading recent history instead.

The Congress policy has been obvious; pale capitalism in office, and thick socialism on election-eve. There is electoral mathematics in this: mobilise minorities on the basis of identity, and split the majority as far as you can on privilege-poverty lines. This is not an original concept, but when you do not have a new idea an old one is far better than nothing. It has worked before. However, will it work again?

An old doctrine about communication strategy suggests that it is easier to persuade those who know that they are being persuaded. This certainly works in romance.

Wooing is wasted on those who are oblivious to its possibilities. But neither individual nor collective assurances of true love work without credibility. Voters will demand to know what you did with the last five years before they give you another five. Since the obvious answer, according to Aruna Roy and the NCP, is nothing much, the minimum necessity for any forward movement is the slow sacrifice of a scapegoat.

Step forward, Manmohan Singh. You have received more than you ever expected from the Congress. All Sonia Gandhi wants in return is the death of your reputation. It's a fair swap, surely?

This also explains the slow ascent of A K Antony in Congress hierarchy. He can be sold as a 1970s khadi-socialist, because he has a properly humble demeanour, and makes vague noises against America if needed. He does not actually do much, which also fits the mould of Congress leftism.

Power struggle

There is no confusion in Congress about who is Number 2; that belongs to Rahul Gandhi as long as his mother is party president. But an epic power struggle continues for rung number 3. Chidambaram did all he could to ease into this slot; he even stood beside Rahul, Gandhi cap on head, to salute the national flag at AICC headquarters on independence day, an excellent photo opportunity that must have caused much heartburn among compatriots. But since it is impossible to sell Chidambaram as any kind of leftist, the chair beside Singh now belongs to Antony. This is not shadow boxing; it is a battle for the real thing. Senior Congressmen are convinced that Rahul Gandhi is not ready to become prime minister in the immediate future, and wants his own version of Manmohan Singh. He would prefer power without the responsibility of office in order to do precisely what is happening now: take credit for what goes right, and shift the blame for that which goes wrong.

We are, therefore, expected to believe that Sonia Gandhi truly wanted to serve the poor but was powerless before an obstinate prime minister. We are also told that when Singh, displaying a hint of muscle, seeks to retain two Cabinet ministers accused of finagling and corruption, Gandhi gets them sacked by raising an indignant eyebrow. This convenient image repositioning is nothing but a public-relations caricature of government. For nearly a decade Singh and Gandhi have taken important decisions together, in consultation, for better or worse. Bouquet and blame must be shared equally.

The voter's take away from this controversy is uncomplicated. It adds the weight of an insider's frustration to a growing conviction that this government has failed those who gave it a second term. Instead of food security, Indians got corruption and excuses. The government could have passed whatever legislation it wanted in its first year; why did it wait till its last year? It was ready to risk its survival for FDI, not for social welfare.

Sonia Gandhi is trying to save what she can of the Congress from the debris of disappointment, but turning Dr Singh into the sole villain of the next script is not going to help. A dark night is a long night. There is plenty of time for some more thought.