Cut in Delhi, run in Ranchi

Cut in Delhi, run in Ranchi

Corruption in high places

A cut motion is moved in the Lok Sabha to wound the Congress alliance in Delhi and a BJP alliance a thousand miles away, in Ranchi, begins to bleed to death. Is there a rational connection between cause and consequence apart from the compulsions of an ageing politician suspected of more crimes than we can count without being a professional mathematician? If the story were only about the addictive duplicity of a drama-centric Shibu Soren, it might be worth a fleeting sneer but not much comment. If the BJP has made its bed with Soren, then it can hardly afford to get hysterical at infidelity.

Some politicians do not offer their souls at wholesale rates; they bargain for small pieces, a bit at a time, at rates negotiated by market value. If the price is occasionally set by police officers of the CBI, that is par for the course in an age of turbulent corruption. The great merit of the Congress is that its expertise in the use of power for the benefit of the party, whether through public policy or private pressure, is unmatched. When the BJP tried similar tactics, it fell on its face. Its nose is still in disrepair.

Cause and consequence may both be obscured by facts. The turmoil in Delhi, with the ruling alliance being hammered for corruption on a scale unprecedented in the history of the UPA, is not accidental. Very little happens by accident; and information is certainly never leaked inadvertently. There are political reasons why a spat between the look-alikes Shashi Tharoor and Lalit Modi blew up like an Iceland volcano, and spread a cloud of ash over the ruling alliance that has left the biggest of big boys wheezing and a number of small boys in self-pitying tears. The telephone tapping brouhaha that followed did not fall into the lap of journalists like nature’s gentle rain from heaven. The transcripts which exposed DMK’s A Raja did not multiply by themselves, like excessively enthusiastic amoeba. Someone leaked that evidence, and it was not the hand of God. The fingerprints belonged to someone in government.

The massive Raja scam, with heavily-lubricated PR agencies, semi-lubricated journalists, and triple-dealing corporations, could have been news more than a year ago. It was not. The general elections had not taken place, and the allies would have been foolish to injure each other before an election. On the face of it, the UPA victory of 2009 reinforced the status quo. In reality, it energised the momentum for equations of the second decade of the 21st century.

Multi-party partnerships

The first decade began with the NDA victory under Atal Behari Vajpayee. Those 10 years were stable precisely because of multi-party partnerships. Every member of the group was allotted a relevant share of the cake, inducing comfort. The NDA was so comfortable that it became complacent, and was punished. Both the Congress and the BJP are aware, even if they do not find it expedient to say so, that the next stage in the evolution of Indian democracy will be the gradual elimination of the smaller parties, many of whom are making themselves irrelevant, either because of their inflexible attitude to leadership or because the issues that brought them into power have outlived its utility.

The paradox can be cruel: the DMK movement, for instance, has lost its dynamic hold on Tamil affections precisely because it has succeeded in its caste-empowerment agenda. It has ruled, in one form or the other, since 1967. A new generation awaits a new agenda, and there is no sign of it. DMK leaders have no idea what to do next, except repeat squalid and vicious wars of succession that went out of fashion in the 18th century. If that is the story of the apex, then the leaders on the rung just below are busy looting with a voracious and inexhaustible appetite. Who can blame the Congress for hoping that it can replace the DMK? The squeeze has begun through an exposure of sleaze. Such exposure played a crucial part in the decimation of Lalu Yadav in Bihar. Lalu did not believe he was being sliced in a pincer; neither does the DMK. It will find out when it is too late.

It is equally obvious that the Congress is not entirely unhappy over the tribulations of Sharad Pawar; Maharashtra is another large state where it can bid for sole supremacy. Once again, the spillage of sleaze on a partner’s reputation does not hurt the Congress, but creates space that it can capture when time creates the opportunity. This is not a drama of continual thunder and lightning; it is a play dominated by long periods of silence, interspersed by occasional bouts of decisive intervention. So stories will rattle through media only to disappear, and then reappear when the optimal moment arrives.

The BJP has begun to realise the futility of allies that take more than they offer. If it wants to return to the spotlight, it must reconstruct; and the architecture of reconstruction cannot be left to the fringe. We will see a gradual but inevitable effort to expand by the Congress and BJP, and in doing so they will disturb the patterns of the last 10 years. There will be patches in the new quilts as well, but far less patchwork.