There’s just a fortnight or so left for polling to begin. And just the other day, answering a reporter’s query, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said something curious: “If the party asks”, she would contest. There are two ways to read that remark. Perhaps it was just a diplomatic, non-committal, open-ended way to parry a question frequently asked. But suppose—since it was a public statement and candidates are still being selected for the latter phases—that this was a candid reflection of the state of play.
Could there possibly be a shorter time-frame within which to plan the electoral debut of someone like Priyanka? Even with her Indira-esque allure, wouldn’t such a late entry into the fray be tempting fate? And thus, wasting a factor of unknown potential? At the very least, does this not speak of a lack of definiteness in planning?
With the Congress, you often see such a split between a corporate flowchart-like plotting of the future and a near-shambolic absence of any plan that you want to ask: Is there a method to the madness, or do the method and the madness work together, on different planes?
Both elements seem to infect the party, almost like a split personality. The NYAY scheme belongs to the side of method. Rahul Gandhi has been talking about such a scheme for a while—though few noticed, despite the huge awareness of distress and joblessness. But the indecisiveness gene is very much there too, sometimes even on fundamental questions. Congress planners should have asked themselves long ago one such: “Should we go for a grand pan-India alliance of anti-BJP parties or not?” And a firm decision on that one way or the other would have entailed cohesive patterns of behaviour thereafter. A willingness to subsume the party’s selfish interests under a larger objective, or going for broke solitarily.
The required answer has been clear since the Bihar Assembly elections. But one finds the Congress still prevaricating, still partly maladjusted to the contemporary nature of Indian polity, where a multitude of social blocs all have their independent voices. Mayawati exists, with all her faults, as a forceful political personality. So does Mamata Banerjee. But their ambivalence towards the Congress is entirely reciprocated, and the latter perhaps happened first. April is almost upon us, and talks are still going on with the AAP in Delhi—though Sheila Dikshit’s ego may prevail in the end. Some late alliances were firmed up in the nick of time. The impression is hard to shake off that it was in the alliance game, but lost out on big stakes. And that it’s partly because the December Assembly elections had left it contemplating a more grandiose summer. That it is still drawn by nostalgia for the old Pax Romana model.
Yes, there are games that move entirely on the play of chance. And then there are those that call upon the player’s deepest strategic reservoirs and tactical alertness. It is not surprising that politics, seen in this light, is often compared to chess. Balancing cosiness with the Left in Delhi, a fuzzy friendship in Bengal and outright skull-’n-bones in Kerala calls for a grandmaster’s skills. Yet, the sheer unpredictability of events, the shifting fuzz of things beyond one’s control, does not disappear. There are disappointments and happy accidents, there is a heuristic discovery of what works and what does not (like those much-hyped elections to the Youth Congress), there is space to look out for the bowler doing ‘the Mankad’, and a time to move tactically with things like the temple run.
But all of it cannot be play. Soft Hindutva is not to be trifled lightly with, secularism is not just a T-shirt slogan, these are forms of politics that call for deep commitment, that have a serious content. Can you be a janeudhaari party, for instance, and claim to speak seriously on behalf of Dalits? The Congress’s tactical fluidity on deep political issues has led India to the edge of the precipice on far too many occasions. It’s always a slippery slope, with potential for deep social consequences.
Yes, there is a vital need for tactical sharpness—and one can’t fault a party for being alive to that. But can the Congress field someone like Navinchandra Bandiwadekar, a Sanatan Sanstha man, from Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg and still claim to be doing meaningful politics? Tactics, tactics... partymen may say. But what’s with waking up at the last minute and replacing Sanjay Nirupam with Milind Deora as the Mumbai unit chief? Even if Mumbai goes last to polling in the state? And pray, what was the voluble Nirupam doing there in the first place? His Shiv Sena past is one thing. More to the point, in the context of Maharashtra, is his Bihar nativity. Before him, we once had the UP-origin Kripashankar Singh there. What precise strategic brilliance was involved in placing figures from the north in charge of a city riven by nativist, anti-north rage, even if one doesn’t buy into that politics? Was it a reading that, since the Maratha space is taken, one might as well go for the migrant vote?
Even with all the room available in politics for a creative harvesting of incompatibles, there is a limit beyond which the voice with which you speak becomes incoherent. You can’t be liberal in New Delhi and play atavistic games on the Konkan coast or a Kerala temple without attracting the charge of duplicity. Do all the loose ends tie up in a neat economic vision? The claim, as of now, seems to rest on that, with NYAY being offered as a source of succour for those at the bottom of India’s vast pyramid. There are those who say there is a touch of madness to that method too, but that’s another debate.
Political Editor, The New Indian Express