It is always challenging to be an observer of politics and government in this city. It is also never boring. But this is one of those phases in our politics that you could describe as the most challenging to understand and interpret and, predictably, the most fun.
You have the ruling party looking more confident, even cockier, than at any time in two decades. At the same time, you have its government looking so hobbled not even halfway into its second year, you would think it was a lame duck serving out its last few months in power. Then, depending on who you run into on the street-corner, you can be told by somebody in a position of authority and knowledge that either of the two could be true, that this is a strong government led by a strengthening party in the very early first half of its term, or that it is indeed a government for a few more months, because you cannot see an increasingly impatient party putting up with it for much longer.
Now here is your challenge as an analyst: if you look at it in terms of straightforward political wisdom, there is no reason why the government should be weak or its party leadership should be getting so impatient with it as to be planning a shift or a change. That, by the way, is my view too.
Yet, I am mindful of the risks to reputation involved in stating that so clearly in a city where it is always considered prudent to ride on a few ifs and buts and disclaimers. Because if you look at the so many pointers on the ground, they defy all reasonable analysis. If this is a government with strength and stability, led by a party that is riding a mood of upsurge, why is it functioning like a lame duck? Or worse, in fact.
An every-man-for-himself government. Or one of at least a dozen prime ministers, where any minister with a mind of his own can do his own thing. And as if this is not odd enough, you now have leading members of what is indeed India’s most disciplined political party and its leadership challenged even less than it was in Nehru and Indira’s times attacking their own government, targeting individual ministers (and picking out the acknowledged doers) and now even blocking its own bills in Parliament.
Some of that confusion has begun to show in the performance of the government. The Kashmir Valley is drifting out of control. Nobody seems to know what the party line on the Naxals is. After nearly five years of respite, our security environment, externally as well as internally, has deteriorated a great deal. Between Kashmir, Maoism, Telangana and the build-up to next year’s elections that promises months of violent uncertainty in West Bengal, India is back to a state of siege. And the argument that evokes the greatest passion in the ruling establishment is whether the use of the description saffron for Hindu right-wing terror is appropriate or not. The world must be laughing at us.
In fact it is. That is why the external security environment has deteriorated alarmingly. In the kind of neighbourhood we live in, nothing is noted more promptly than a phase of weakness and waffling descending on India. Even if you leave Pakistan aside as the usual suspect, we would be living in denial if we do not read the message from China. They have now checked us out over a year and felt bold enough to escalate gradually to a level where they can deny visa to one of our three-star generals in a much celebrated, ongoing process of military-to-military contact because he serves in Kashmir. Yet they put nearly a division strength of their troops in what India considers its own, or at least disputed, Kashmiri territory.
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The Chinese are not about to invade. But by reducing us to this impotent, silent rage they are only reminding us of the hollowness of our own claims to any big power status. They are underlining to us, in their typically blunt yet convoluted way, that we are merely a subcontinental power which has issues, Pakistan and Kashmir, to handle within our own neighbourhood. And we, meanwhile, cannot decide to buy an artillery gun for our army in 23 years, have critical defence acquisitions blocked because the director of the CBI produced a list of charges against certain suppliers and has not yet backed it even with an FIR.
And do you want to know how scandalous this is? The omnipotent CBI chief, modern-day Indian equivalent of Stalin’s infamous hatchet-man Beria (show me the man, I will give you the crime), gave these charges not even on his agency’s letterhead but on a plain piece of paper and, most breathtaking of all, did not even sign it. And yet the government, and the mighty Cabinet Committee on Security, have not been able to toss aside this incredible spanner.
When issues of vital national security get such short shrift you can imagine what happens to economics. Over the past six months, a resurgent India’s growth environment has been replaced by the dark povertarianism of the sixties. We must, in fact, be the only nation in the world today where the ruling elites and establishment intellectuals are all competing to prove whose count of people below the poverty line is higher because in this new mood, the higher your count, the more virtuous you are. Digvijaya Singh carries on fighting his personal battle with P Chidambaram and Mani Shankar Aiyar with the whole government, though much more entertainingly.
Meanwhile, corporate India watches in amazement how a minister of state can routinely walk all over the prime minister. This anarchy has spread deeper still. The health ministry bureaucracy carries out a witch-hunt of Indian scientists involved in a reputed international scientific study in a manner reminiscent of the licence-permit-quota-foreign-hand raj of the mid-seventies. This when the prime minister is setting up more universities of science and centres of research. You wonder if he has checked with his joint secretaries first.
We have seen governments in India lose their way early in their tenures. But those were governments like the Janata in 1977 and the daily-wage arrangements of V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Gowda and Gujral. That one as politically strong as UPA-II should be so adrift is a new, and unfamiliar, political phenomenon even in this benighted city.
Maybe, just maybe, the problem arises from the political mood and situation of the Congress Party. Half its leaders, beginning with Rahul Gandhi, are already in campaign mode for 2014 and the problem is that the other half presume that the election has already been won and are therefore positioning themselves for their share of the power the next election will bring. This has a twin consequence. First, you lose interest in the current government, because it is a mere interregnum, a minor halt en route the real thing.
Second, how do you ensure the jobs and the positions you think you deserve in 2014, unless you discredit the ones holding the same now? These are the riddles that Sonia, in her new term as party president, Rahul, as the new emerging mass leader, and Manmohan Singh in his second and last term as prime minister, have to solve now. It is these also that make our current politics so much more fun only if you were watching from outside.
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