The Congress may gloat over its ‘victory’ in the presidential elections battle, but it will most likely prove to be a Pyrrhic one. To begin with, Sonia Gandhi, as usual, dithered about declaring the name of the candidate to be supported by the UPA — read that as Congress. Mock consultations with alliance partners continued, we were told, behind the scenes. The subsequent fiasco exposed, in an embarrassing manner, that the spokespersons were being more than economical with the truth. The only honorable exception was Satyavrat Chaturvedi, who, without adding to the travails of his party, candidly admitted that these things take time and advised all not to jump the gun.
One can only sympathise with the Congress President as Mamata, the most significant ally, decided to become the party pooper for the UPA. Her aversion to Pranab Babu, made public in a joint press conference with Mulayam Singh, forced Sonia’s hand. True to his style, Mulayam somersaulted before Mamata could even allow herself a smirk, and the rest, as they say, became history.
But it will be naïve to keep analysing the soap opera that was so depressingly enacted before Pranab Babu’s way to Raisina Hill was paved with ‘good intentions’. What is far more important is to keep track of the aftermath — the shenanigans of the ‘vanquished’ and those who turned around the fortunes on this battlefield. Let’s not forget that Mamata retains her cohort of MPs, and the Congress is in no position to kick her out of the alliance. It can’t hope to secure the passage of any significant legislation without her support. Jagan Mohan Reddy has all but routed Sonia and Rahul’s Congress in Andhra, and the writing on the wall is clear.
No signs of a revival in fortunes are visible anywhere. Also, Mulayam has the Congress leadership where he wants it. He is indispensible now. But the Congress can’t take his support for granted in all future skirmishes with the Opposition. After all, he is their principal opponent in the UP. Nor is it going to be easy placating Mayavati, while Mulayam, her bete noire, is accorded pride of place in the confabulations. There are limits to the persuasive powers of the CBI. Neither Mulayam nor Maya can be threatened or browbeaten like Laloo or Shibu.
The Left may have no compunctions about bailing out the UPA and the Congress on this one, but can they coexist for long on the same side, with Mamata? The ideological divide on major economic policy issues can’t just wither away either.
They will most likely try to exacerbate the contradictions within the Congress.
Pranab Babu’s elevation has also created other headaches for the High Command. Who can be given the charge of the Finance Ministry? Who will now serve as the Leader of the House in the Lok Sabha? Who can head with panache more than three score EGoMs? More important than all else, who can now be employed as the trusted troubleshooter, both by the PM and the Congress president? There may be paucity of real talent and experience, but there is no dearth of ambition or arrogance in the party. Chidambaram, poor man, has to lie low for a while thanks to the election petition, but half-a-dozen contenders — all loyal courtiers of 10 Janpath — are already sharpening their knives to do rival colleagues in.
What we have found most disturbing is that the PM — that most honorable man for all seasons — was missing from action all the while. He left the creation of the mess, and its subsequent clearing, entirely to the UPA chairperson. He left as fast as he could on his foreign tour. The great economist, who is obviously unable to cope with the domestic economic crisis, is apparently in great demand for rescue operations in Europe and the Americas. To be frank, all this is Greek to us. Even more intriguing has been the absence of Rahul Gandhi from the battle fray. He didn’t deign it worth his while to make even a cameo appearance — like he had done at the height of the Lokpal Bill agitation — and throw a game-changing spanner in the works. No one can grudge anyone in public life, his or her moments of privacy, but alas those who chose to serve the nation voluntarily and are elected representatives of the people or hold important positions in their party, have to sacrifice some of the pleasures that an ordinary citizen can indulge in in a carefree manner. Leaders and would-be-leaders can’t remain unheard and unseen for long spells. Spokespersons — polite or rude, crude or gifted spin doctors — can’t substitute for their masters.
Just before the diversion of presidential polls distracted us, the question that was being asked bluntly (and not only by Azim Premji) was, “Who is leading India?” It’s time to resume our search for the answer.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own
Pushpesh Pant is a professor of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi