Friday 9 September 2011

Congress paralysed without Sonia (PO)

M D Nalapat
When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh landed in Dhaka on September 7, his retinue did not include the most important member, Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee of West Bengal (now renamed Paschim Banga). Till the final two hours, efforts had been ongoing to get her to join the group, and to drop her objection to the PM signing the Teesta River Accord with his Bangladesh counterpart, Sheikh Hasina Wajed. These failed, and the outcome was a huge loss of face for Dr Manmohan Singh personally, who was shown to command zero political influence with Ms Banerjee, despite the high post that he holds. Clearly, it had been a mistake to deal with Ms Banerjee through bureaucrats, competent though these might have been. Just as the British colonialists looked upon Indian members of the civil service with contempt, so too do politicians regard officials. Each day, all too many of the latter crawl at the feet of the former, either to get a prize posting or to avoid being shifted from one. It was therefore no surprise that the senior civil servants who had been dispatched failed to persuade the West Bengal Chief Minister to accept the Accord.

This columnist has repeatedly pointed out that all the talk about Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh (the two Congress leaders most eager for an agreement with Pakistan) being “on the verge” of signing a deal on Kashmir is just that. Talk. Even in the case of the once-powerful CEO of Pakistan, it is doubtful that the Corps Commanders of the Army would have allowed Pervez Musharraf to accept a solution for Kashmir that did not call for the gaining of territory (despite news reports during both the Vajpayee and Singh periods that such a dea was “in the final stages of drafting”). 

In the case of India, there is zero chance of a political consensus for any agreement except that favoured by Indian negotiators at Shimla in 1971, which is the legalisation of the status quo. Because they forgot the need to build a political consensus, the Prime Minister’s team severely compromised his image and standing, in the process harming that of India as well. However, they cannot be blamed, as it is not the job of the PMO to be concerned with politics. In the United Progressive Alliance government, it is Sonia Gandhi’s responsibility to look after the political side, and Manmohan Singh’s to pay attention to the administrative details. The absence of the Congress President for six weeks (and counting) has affected cohesion in decision-making, in that these days, the political component is missing from government decisions. As a consequence, actions that are deeply unpopular are getting carried out, such as the arrest and incarceration of the 73-year old saint, Anna Hazare. But where is Sonia Gandhi? The “independent” media in India as well as the even more “free” foreign media has thus far not said more than a few sentences about the person who owns the ruling party. In an age of instant communication, it is noteworthy that there seems to be zero difference between India and North Korea where it comes to the health of the top leader, except that in the North Korean case, there are occasional photographs of the Dear Leader. In the case of Sonia Gandhi, after she disappeared from sight soon after a visit to Bangladesh two months ago, there has been no photograph of hers, nor even a statement, whether oral or in writing.

All that the public have to satisfy their curiosity is the assurance of Congress Party spokespersons that she is well, and will be back soon. Indeed, every week there have been reports of Sonia’s imminent return. Over the past two days, there has been a crescendo of reports that the Congress President is coming back “this night”. By the time this column gets printed, maybe she would have come back. But the chances are that she will still be elusive, for reasons difficult to fathom.

What to make of the contempt for the public’s Right to Know that has been evidenced by those who have made such a secret of Sonia Gandhi’s health? And that too in an administration that calls the Right to Information act (indeed a useful - if incomplete - example of legislation) its centrepiece. Fear of having the Income-tax department or any other of the sundry agencies of government on their tale has killed the curiosity of those controlling the media in India. However, the very absence of news has led to an unintended consequence, which is that the public in India now seem unbothered by Sonia’s absence. There is no effect at all in the public mood, which would otherwise have been expected to overflow with sympathy for a leader clearly unwell. Of course, this lack of emotion may also be because of the numerous statements by Congress functionaries that she is “recovering fast”. Should this not be the case, and should her illness be more grave, the consequences for the Congress Party would be momentous, for the reason that she is the only - repeat only – source of power within the party. As yet, her son and heir Rahul Gandhi does not seem to have built up the gravitas needed to become acceptable as the Supremo of the Congress Party, in the place of his mother.

It is no surprise that Sonia Gandhi is the single fount of authority in her party. This has always been the case with the Nehrus. Even in the case of the individual whom prominent writers such as Shashi Tharoor and Sunil Khilnani claim “brought democracy to India”, Jawaharlal Nehru, several highly consequential decisions were taken because of personal predilection and without any consultation with other leaders. Nehru forged the country’s “non-aligned” policy, he introduced a socialist system of economy and retained the entire panoply of British-era laws and procedures without even the pretence of consultation. And yet Nehru is considered to be the exemplar of democracy! After 65 years of rule by Nehruvians, the country is several times more backward than several economies that in 1947 were even poorer than India was at the time. This columnist has just come back from a trip, and has undergone hours of torment on roads that mimic moon craters. He is writing out this column by battery power, as the electricity has (once again) ceased to flow. Since morning, there has been no water. Such is the quality of life in Nehru-style democracy, where only the leader has freedom, with the others having only the “right to follow” the leader. The drawback of such a system is that it gets paralysed when the leader is absent, as is the case with the disappearance from public view of UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi. Small wonder that the Congress Party is praying that Sonia will come back and soon, so that they may follow once again rather than be forced into the intolerable situation of being on their own.

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