THE WHIFF OF 1969

India Today - - BY WORD - M. J. AK­BAR

There is a straight con­nect be­tween the knee and the tongue: Through the jerk. When a po­lit­i­cal knee jerks, it smashes into your chin, cuts your tongue and pro­duces gar­ble that you can re­gret in the lux­ury of time. Mrs Sushma Swaraj is a veteran who has seen the sea­sons, and is care­ful with words. She must be won­der­ing which slip of the mind per­suaded her to de­scribe Pranab Mukher­jee, the leader of her House, the Lok Sabha, and Hamid An­sari, chair­man of the Ra­jya Sabha, as men of in­suf­fi­cient stature for the post of Pres­i­dent of In­dia. To be fair, she pos­si­bly meant that her pre­ferred can­di­date for Pres­i­dent, Ab­dul Kalam, had higher stature than Congress nom­i­nees. But that is not what the world heard.

A lapse lasts only as long as a news cy­cle. The hurry to name can­di­dates is quite in­ex­pli­ca­ble. There are still six weeks left for nom­i­na­tions; and 10 for the ac­tual poll. This is the time to pon­der; judg­ment can come later.

Long used to fill­ing Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van by se­lec­tion, po­lit­i­cal par­ties seem a tri­fle be­mused by the prospect of a gen­uine elec­tion. Congress is merely re­peat­ing what it did in 2007: Throw­ing up names to check which will float, which will be punc­tured by pel­lets, and which will sink un­der their own dead­weight. In 2007 Pranab Mukher­jee was on the first Congress list. Mrs So­nia Gandhi sab­o­taged Mukher­jee only af­ter he shifted from prob­a­ble to pos­si­ble, af­ter en­dorse­ment from the Left. She then pulled out Mrs Prat­i­bha Patil from well- de­served anonymity, aware that a short dead­line left lit­tle op­por­tu­nity for de­bate. The early Congress bird does not nec­es­sar­ily get the worm.

2012 is dif­fer­ent for at least two rea­sons. Af­ter five years of Mrs Patil, In­di­ans want some­one with dig­nity, cal­i­bre and hon­esty as their Pres­i­dent. An­other sleight- of- the- hand choice might, just con­ceiv­ably, muster up num­bers in the elec­toral col­lege, but will be pun­ished by public opin­ion.

In 2007, dis­cus­sions were about can­di­dates, not vic­tory. To­day, Congress is racked with un­cer­tainty be­cause it heads a coali­tion that is in­vul­ner­a­ble on pa­per and vul­ner­a­ble in prac­tice. Num­bers do not bring sta­bil­ity; gov­er­nance does. UPA 1 had fo­cus and co­gency, as well as al­lies who knew the value of ques­tions. That part­ner­ship of the will­ing has de­gen­er­ated into an al­liance of the hap­haz­ard. Congress has desta­bilised it­self; and this in­fec­tion has spread to al­lies. If the axis of a coali­tion be­comes un­steady, the rim can­not hold. De­feat in UP or Pun­jab or Delhi is only a symp­tom; the wast­ing dis­ease is shrink­ing cred­i­bil­ity.

Each week some­thing hap­pens, mi­nor or ma­jor, to jolt a party al­ready in grip of cease­less tremors. Ex­am­ine the cat­a­logue of the past seven days. A for­mer Ma­ha­rash­tra chief min­is­ter is in­dicted in high- rise cor­rup­tion. A for­mer na­tional spokesman of the party is trapped in low- rise shenani­gans. A court hears al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion against the Union home min­is­ter. Re­volt be­gins to un­hinge the most suc­cess­ful Congress CM, in As­sam. Ru­mour gives the Congress CM in Andhra only a few more weeks in of­fice.

A fright­ened Gov­ern­ment tries to frighten me­dia with a pri­vate mem­ber’s “Print and Elec­tronic Me­dia Stan­dards and Reg­u­la­tions Bill, 2012”. It seeks to le­git­imise cen­sor­ship and au­thor­i­tar­ian co­er­cion through fa­mil­iar means, like an an­nual li­cence re­newal and puni­tive fines for “un­ver­i­fied and du­bi­ous ma­te­rial”, a phrase whose elas­tic­ity could bank­rupt most me­dia com­pa­nies through le­gal fees. Gov­ern­ment, in­ci­den­tally, never has a prob­lem with lawyers’ fees: It pays them with your money. The au­thor of this pro­posed leg­is­la­tion is Meenakshi Na­tra­jan, whose fame rests on her prox­im­ity to Rahul Gandhi. Congress spokes­men deny Rahul Gandhi’s role; but you could hardly ex­pect them to con­firm it.

Cu­ri­ously, nei­ther the Gov­ern­ment nor the Op­po­si­tion has a ma­jor­ity in this Lok Sabha. The Op­po­si­tion is in dis­ar­ray since the largest Op­po­si­tion party, BJP, has not suc­cess­fully ne­go­ti­ated the terms of ref­er­ence for a vi­able al­ter­na­tive. The Gov­ern­ment is not strong enough to gov­ern; the Op­po­si­tion is not strong enough to dis­place it. Gov­ern­ment wafts along from cri­sis to cri­sis on this anom­aly.

The sit­u­a­tion is rem­i­nis­cent of 1969. Ex­ploit­ing un­cer­tainty with great skill, Prime Min­is­ter Indira Gandhi de­fied her own party and put up V. V. Giri against the of­fi­cial Congress nom­i­nee San­jeeva Reddy. Pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns are con­ducted in si­lence. When 1969’ s deals were done, ev­ery tra­di­tional line be­tween left, right and cen­tre had blurred. No one was cer­tain which way the vote would go. Mrs Gandhi tri­umphed thanks to the Akali Dal and the sec­ond pref­er­ence votes of a west UP leader, Chaud­hary Cha­ran Singh. In six years, the Akalis as well as Cha­ran Singh were in Mrs Gandhi’s Emer­gency jails; in 1977, they routed Congress and made San­jeeva Reddy Pres­i­dent.

In 1969 Mrs Gandhi pre­pared two speeches on count­ing day. One of them was meant for de­feat, in which case she would have re­signed. Se­lec­tion is tick- tac- toe. An elec­tion is a game with for­mi­da­ble stakes.

SAU­RABH SINGH/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

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