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Tragic Soap Opera

Tragic Soap Opera
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IF it hadn’t been affecting our governance, the ongoing soap opera would indeed have been amusing. Puny comical characters blown up by vaulting egos, acting as if they are carrying the weight of the nation on their shoulders. Pretending to be engaged in a tough ideological war, when their only concern is power. Threatening to unsheath their swords, though they know the scabbards they carry are empty.

The most comical of them all, of course, is the new Congress President, Sitaram Kesri, supposedly the custodian of the Nehruvian legacy. With the possible exception of his close coterie— Tariq Anwar, Ahmed Patel and possibly Ghulam Nabi Azad— nobody quite knows what’s on Chacha’s mind. No, he is nowhere as inaccessible as his predecessor P.V. Narasimha Rao. But in his short tenure as Congress chief, he has revealed himself to be a bundle of con-tradictions. What will he do or say next? Nobody knows.

Consider this. One of the first things he did after taking over was to elevate that middle class icon, Manmohan Singh, to the Congress Working Committee. He had plans for the former FM, we were told. Manmohan Singh has a clean image, and putting him upfront would help erase the stigma of corruption the party had acquired during Rao’s stewardship. There were even hints that Manmohan could be entrusted with the leadership of the Congress Parliamentary Party. But where ’s he now? Kesri got himself elected C P P leader, and gifted the Lok Sabha leadership to Sharad Pawar. The honest Sardar, the mascot of liberalisation, was actually attacked for his economic vision by the C P P executive. Kesri was present, but chose to stay silent. For, by then he had begun building dreams of the prime ministerial gaddi . And for that, one essential thing is the support of the Left, which has no love lost for Manmohanomics. Thus, a carefully graded distance had to be created.

As for restoring the clean image of the Congress, Kesri’s commitment is evident by the fielding of Kamal Nath in the Chindwara Lok Sabha byelection. The pending chargesheet against him in the Jain hawala case and the reports relating to his efforts to smuggle in goodies without paying customs duty, obviously, were not inhibiting factors. The message was underlined further by the nomination of Buta Singh, another hawala-tainted politico, for the byelection to the Ropar Lok Sabha seat.

But it’s the Kesri-Gowda bad vibes that are more significant. Everybody knows Kesri is no admirer of Deve Gowda. But look at his reasons. Gowda does not meet him as often as he met his predecessor, Narasimha Rao. That’s insulting all right. What Kesri found particularly galling was that Gowda actually dared to suggest that the Congress should nominate a re p resentative or set up a committee for better coordination with the United Front. The septuagenarian virtually spluttered with rage as he dismissed the suggestion out of hand and insisted Gowda would have to deal with him and him alone. For the love of me, I can-not find anything in the suggestion to get so mad about. After all, how can one quarre l with a proposal which could systemise the support arrangement? The only fathomable explanation is the new Congress leader’s overblown ego. The fact remains that every Congress leader believes in the old theory of the divine right to rule. It gives him acute indigestion to find anyone else holding the reins of power.

On the other side of the fence is Deve Gowda, catapulted to power only because the mood among the majority of the members of the 11th Lok Sabha was distinctly anti-Rao and anti-BJP. It also helped that the two natural non-Congress, non-B J P choices —  V.P. Singh and Jyoti Basu— declined to head the coalition for their own reasons. A veneer of ideology was sought to be put over expediency with the Common Minimum Programme (CMP), which the Prime Minister said would be his Bible.

But the humble farmer also happens to be extremely forgetful. He has obviously forgotten the first commandment of what was to have been his government ’s holy book. The hope relating to the setting of a new federal order in the country, with regional parties holding the key to New Delhi. The C M P had promised to take the Sarkaria Commission report on Centre-state ties out of the cotton wool, implement some proposals straightaway and form a panel to examine the others. The whole thing has been put in cold storage again. Similarly, the promise to devolve financial powers to the states, which was to have borne fruit by last September, remains just that, a promise. The pledges about the Lokpal bill, the bill on electoral reforms, and the publication of the Vohra Committee report on the politician-criminal nexus have also gone abegging.

But our Prime Minister is too concerned about his survival and the affairs of his own home state to bother. For the rest, he will proudly display his badge of humble origins. The issues can wait. Governance is not important. The gaddi is all. The truth, and perhaps the tragedy, is that Deve Gowda will continue to be in the saddle for a while. Not because of his dynamism, or even any inherent stability, but for the simple reason that the Congress, forced into a shotgun marriage with the United Front last June, does not have the courage to walk out of it.

But the ever-present threat won’t let the United Front govern well either. Hard decisions will be avoided all around because of the everlooming threat of mid-term polls. The recipe is simple. Carry on with populism. Throw in sops in the Budget. And leave the dirty aspects of governance (like tackling the oil pool deficit) to future regimes. The farmer, one suspects, has been growing fat on the throne on this diet. Not that there is much to choose between him and Kesri, no qualitative diff e rence in work ethic. Both are mirror images of each other, reflecting back nothing but their individual quests for power. So there won’t be too many tears if, by happenstance, Gowda falls out of power. Just like Kesri’s enthronement, strictly hypothetical now, can’t be an occasion to rejoice. 

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