Friday, January 27, 2012

Congress lands in its own trap

(First published in The Pioneer on January 25, 2012)


As much as the Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh is a battle of the ballot, it is also a battle of words. The verbal duets are often at the level of allegations and counter-allegations on ideology and policies, but they also take a more personalised shape.

While the tu-tu-main-main is always a welcome source of entertainment for the voters and the media alike, these verbal exchanges do at times change the perception of the voters towards the candidates and the parties.

But such personal barbs are a double-edged sword because they can cut both ways. Rahul Gandhi, who is considered by the Congress as the ‘tallest’; leader in the party (after Sonia Gandhi), learnt this truth the hard way recently. Soon after it became formal that Uma Bharati would contest the election from Charkhari constituency in the Bundelkhand region of the State as the BJP candidate, Mr Gandhi immediately fired a salvo.

He ridiculed her ‘outsider’ status saying that she had migrated from Madhya Pradesh. But before Mr Gandhi’s sycophants could begin celebrating their icon’s ‘master-stroke’, the fiery BJP leader hit back, and hit where it hurts the Congress the most. She pointed out that his mother Sonia Gandhi had come all the way from Italy to India (and Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh which she represents in the Lok Sabha). Whoever suggested that line to Mr Gandhi must have been really dumb.

If it was the brainwave of the Congress’s heir apparent, then Mr Gandhi has a long way to go, and ought to really be more careful. He is comparatively still a greenhorn, and as political veterans will tell you, getting entangled with Ms Bharati is entirely at one’s own risk.

In any case, coming from the Congress, the charge that a political leader is an ‘outsider’ does not sound credible. Perhaps Mr Gandhi has forgotten that its most ‘celebrated’ Chief Minister of Delhi — Sheila Dikshit — hails from Uttar Pradesh.

When she was brought to Delhi to turn the Congress’s fortunes, which were then at a low, regional satraps had strongly objected to the move on the ground that she was an ‘outsider’. But the Congress had brushed aside those misgivings. Today, neither the Congress nor the Opposition raises the issue of Ms Dikshit being an ‘outsider’. One wonders what the Chief Minister of Delhi has to say about Mr Gandhi’s comment on Ms Bharati.

Mr Gandhi appears to have also conveniently forgotten that his party’s Prime Minister represents Assam with which he has no connection. Also, the ‘youth leader’ must keep in the mind that his party’s MP, Mohammed Azharuddin has come all the way from Hyderabad to represent Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh.

The fact is that the Congress is jittery over the damage that the BJP leader can inflict over the former’s prospects at least in the Bundelkhand belt which Mr Gandhi has been regularly visiting for months now. He has been unfailingly reminding its residents of the region’s backwardness and the lack of opportunities that they have for growth and prosperity under Ms Mayawati’s regime.

He has been telling them how the Congress can do wonders for them — if only they would vote for the party. He has left nothing to chance, goading the Government into announcing a ‘special package’ for the region, and then accusing the Mayawati Government of bungling in the implementation of that package. In December last year, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia too joined the act by expressing concern at the ‘tardy progress and widespread irregularities’ in the scheme for which more than Rs 3,600 crore had been released by the plan panel more than 18 months ago.

The Congress is worried that the lack of any real progress on the ground will cost it heavily in terms of votes in the coming election and, more important, result in a loss of face for Mr Gandhi. The people here will not buy the Congress’s argument that Ms Mayawati alone is responsible for messing up the region although the Congress-led UPA had given its money for development.

Their reasoning is: If the State Government has indeed mismanaged central funds, why has the Union Government not taken action against it?

The Congress believes that it has this time a good chance to dent the BSP’s support base in the region, given that the anti-incumbency factor is said to be strong throughout the State. In the last Assembly election in 2007, the BSP had unexpectedly swept Bundelkhand, winning 16 of the 21 Assembly seats, while the Congress had to be satisfied with a mere three seats.

But the arrival of Ms Bharati has become a spoiler for the Congress. The BJP has nothing to lose in the region and everything to gain; it had drawn a blank in 2007. Analysts believe that any gain by the BJP in Bundelkhand will be at the cost of the Congress.

By raising the pitch against Ms Bharati, the Congress, and especially Mr Gandhi, has invited from her another retort that could well define the future shape of an already contentious political relationship within the Congress: That of between Mr Gandhi and Digvijay Singh. Call it the glorious uncertainty of Indian politics, Ms Bharati is in a way pitted against her old bete noire Digvijay Singh whom she had trounced in Madhya Pradesh in 2003 and who is now Mr Gandhi’s advisor of sorts on Uttar Pradesh.

In fact, there is little doubt that the Congress’s scion’s forays in Uttar Pradesh have been largely crafted by Mr Singh. After Mr Gandhi’s ‘outsider’ remark against her, the BJP leader did not stop at castigating him but went a step further and said that his “guru” Digvijay Singh too would be cut down to size in Uttar Pradesh like she had done to him in Madhya Pradesh.

If the Congress does worse than the worst-case scenario that it has worked out, Mr Singh’s credibility and job should be at stake. In such a situation it may become difficult for him to retain Mr Rahul Gandhi’s confidence. But even if the Congress manages to do somewhat better than it did in 2007 when it ended up with just 22 seats in the 403-member House, it will be seen as a defeat.

Since no leader of the Congress will dare point to Mr Gandhi for the cause of the poor show, Mr Singh can become the fall guy. So, by clubbing the two Congress leaders as “guru-shishya”, Ms Bharati has made sure that any setback to the Congress in the election is seen as much a failure of Mr Gandhi’s leadership as it is a voters’ rejection of Mr Singh’s dubious guidance.

Calling names does not work beyond a point in politics, and Mr Rahul Gandhi should be educated about that. When Mrs Indira Gandhi was dubbed a dumb doll — “goongi gudiya” — by her opponents within the Congress when she first became the Prime Minister, it must have given a kick to all those veterans who had ganged up against her. But she had the last laugh.

When Ms Sonia Gandhi injudiciously referred to the likes of Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi and his Government as “Maut ke saudagar” in an implied way, she ended up dramatically polarising support in his favour that led to the BJP sweeping election after election in that State. So, has Mr Gandhi done a favour to Ms Bharati? Let’s see.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Let the carnival of politics begin

(First appeared in The Pioneer dated January 19, 2011)


Conventional wisdom says: Too many cooks spoil the broth. But clinging to conventional wisdom will become an obstacle for those who wish to understand the politics of Goa and enjoy its roller-coaster ride. So, tie your seat-belts, leave logic aside and have fun as the voters of the State prepare to elect their 40 representatives from a large and colourful bunch of candidates to the Assembly on March 3. Because, in Goa, ‘the more the merrier’ rules the ballot box more than anything else.

The battlefield has the more known faces who have been returning again and again either to retain seats or win them. But there are also those who are untested and new to electoral politics. So, rubbing shoulders with hardboiled political veterans like former Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar and incumbent Chief Minister Digambar Kamat is the greenhorn Father Bismarck Dias, a Catholic priest who will now issue sermons to the voters on good governance and confess to his desire to be an MLA. But banish the thought that he represents the powerful Catholic Church as its candidate. The Church does not need to be heard in the ordinary portals of the State Assembly when it has a direct connect with the Good Lord. Never mind the fact that the Church has played a more than spiritual role in the recent past, dabbling in all sorts of agitations — the anti-Konkan Railway movement and the emotionally-charged and at times violent protests to make Konkani the sole official language of the State, being just two of those — that had a political tilt.

Fr Dias has been fielded by a clutch of social organisations which believes that a great deal of social good would be done if one of its own sits in the hallowed precincts of the House — now housed for some years in a glittering new complex across Mandovi river in Porvorim, a stone’s throw away from the capital town of Panaji (or Panjim). Even before he wins or loses, he has created a record that even the Church would be proud of: Fr Dias has become the first Christian priest to contest an election in the State. Amen!

At a more material level, it makes sense for the priest to throw his hat (or the robe) into the electoral ring. The non-Government organisations have been for long having a field day in Goa because, tiny though the State is, it is filled to the brim with people dissatisfied with a range of issues — from political to civic to social. The NGOs believe that the citizens who have vociferously backed them on their various movements would now, as voters, put their votes where their mouth is. The State waits with bated breath, and Fr Dias will do so almost breathlessly, for the outcome of the poll.

Of course, few expect the NGOs to win enough seats to mark their presence in the Assembly, but political parties are still wary because the candidates being put up can eat into their votes enough to make a difference between victory and defeat.

One shudders to think how dull Goa’s politics would have been without the likes of the bandana-sporting Mickey Pachecho, former Minister for Tourism and now chief of Goa Vikas Party, an outfit that he has floated after being ousted from the Cabinet over allegations of his involvement in the mysterious death of a female friend. He has in the past briefly flirted with the BJP and been with the Nationalist Congress Party.

He will be remembered for the infamous quote that he allegedly made: Goa has become the rape ‘city’ of the country. Nobody remembers him for any substantial contribution that he may have made as a Minister or politician — though to discover that achievement would in itself be something of an achievement. Yet, he is crucial to maintaining the breezy image the State’s politics has.

In this election, though, he is poised to play the spoiler for the Congress. Mr Pachecho has a fan following of considerable size in the southern belt of Salcete taluka dominated by Christians, who have traditionally been Congress voters. It is also a region that has seen the maximum amount of vote divisions among smaller outfits, which has denied the Congress the sweep that it ought to be making, going strictly by the taluka’s demography. By default, then, the BJP could be the beneficiary.

The Congress may consider him a baggage that has been well rid of, but the party has burdened itself with another kind of baggage in the form of the portly Jitendra Deshprabhu. A landlord of some stature, he owns an acid tongue that has singed many an opponent of his. For some reason he suddenly left — or was compelled to do so by circumstances — the Congress and joined hands with the Nationalist Congress Party to unsuccessfully contest the Lok Sabha election.

Meanwhile, he has spent a fortnight in jail on charges of his association with illegal mining and has been fined more than a crore of rupees over the issue. On the eve of Assembly election and with cases going on against him, he has returned to the Congress to contest. The party has taken the line that the law will take its own course. But both Mr Deshprabhu and the Congress have taken recourse to opportunism. That should not be surprising; after all, Chief Minister Digambar Kamat too is charged with complicity in the rampant illegal mining that is destroying the State and yet he leads the party’s election campaign.

What has added to the Congress’s misery is the decision of the Trinamool Congress to put up its candidates in a bid to divide the Congress’s vote share. The party in the State is led by an old political warhorse, Wilfred de Souza. A surgeon by training and politician by choice, de Souza is a former Congressman and Chief Minister and shares a decent equation with the BJP leader, Mr Parrikar. He can also wreck the Congress.

All of this leaves the BJP in a rather happy position, except that it has some problems of its own. The cold war between two of its tallest leaders in the State, leader of Opposition Manohar Parrikar and member of Lok Sabha from North Goa Sripad Naik, has been somewhat of a dampener to what is otherwise an upbeat BJP camp. A sulking Mr Naik is not accompanying the former Chief Minister on the latter’s Jan sampark abhiyaan. The two were recently seen for a while during senior party leader Arun Jaitley’s visit to the State, but thereafter have remained confined to their respective support groups.

Mr Naik wants to return to active politics in the State and contest the election, but Mr Parrikar’s camp believes that, if the MP is allowed to return to his ‘roots’, he could become a parallel power-centre, thus damaging the party in the State.

Nevertheless, the BJP can look forward to some benefits from its expected alliance with the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, which has a large following especially in North Goa. Although nowhere near its peak — the MGP governed Goa for a little less than two decades since the State was liberated in 1961 — and thereafter splintered many times beyond recognition, it continues to remain a political force that can brighten the BJP’s prospects.

One month from now, electioneering will have reached a feverish pitch in Goa. The State will also be in the grip of Carnival festivities. With two carnivals going on simultaneously, the people of Goa could not have asked for more.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Son reinvents papa's party

(First published in The Pioneer dated January 12, 2012)


All eyes are on Chief Minister Mayawati and Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi in the election to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly. While the first is seeking to retain power, the second has led the Congress’s high-profile campaign to dislodge her. But, in the acrimonious battle between the two, sufficient attention has not been paid to the rise of another force who could, in the coming months, determine the politics of the State that has the maximum number of Assembly seats in the country — 403 — and also sends the largest contingent of members — 80 — to the Lok Sabha. That force is Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son, Akhilesh Yadav.

A Member of Parliament from Kannauj, Mr Akhilesh Yadav has for long been identified as his father’s son who has come to occupy prominence in the party largely on the strength of his family lineage. But a series of events has established the 38-year old environmental engineer as a politician to watch out for, not just within the Samajwadi Party but also in Uttar Pradesh. As president of the SP in the State, he would have been nothing more than an ornamental piece in the party’s drawing room but for his dramatic interventions in recent months. Before that he had remained in the shadow of his father and rarely attempted to set any new agenda.

The low-profile that he maintained also had something to do with the humiliating defeat his wife suffered in the Lok Sabah by-election to the Firozabad seat, which had been vacated by him after he retained the Kannauj seat. Mr Akhilesh Yadav’s wife, Dimple, lost the by-poll in 2009 to Congress candidate and actor-turned-politician Raj Babbar, despite her husband’s high-profile campaigning. But that has changed now, and the rank and file of the Samajwadi Party has come to accept, though a few among them do so grudgingly, that Mr Akhilesh Yadav calls the shots in the party.

There will be many in the party who are happy with the breath of fresh air that has begun to blow in the run-up to the election. But there are also some entrenched veterans who are ruffled by the emergence of the young leader, though they may have to wait for a while before they can precipitate a crisis. The performance of the Samajwadi Party in the Assembly election will to a large extent determine whether Mr Akhilesh Yadav’s assertiveness has paid off or whether his critics in the party will have the last laugh. But for now, he has bit the bullet by leading from the front and stamping his authority on the party’s decision-making process.

Two recent incidents emphatically demonstrate the arrival of Mr Akhilesh Yadav. The first is as follows: Controversial politician and ‘muscleman’ DP Yadav knocked at the doors of the Samajwadi Party for an entry. He even met influential party leader and MLA from Rampur, Mohammed Azam Khan and reportedly discussed the issue. A sitting MLA from Sahaswan in Badaun on the Bahujan Samaj Party ticket, DP Yadav has been denied re-nomination by Ms Mayawati. He was, therefore, keen to join hands with the Samajwadi Party against her. On any other day, the party would have welcomed him with open arms. But Mr Akhilesh Yadav put his foot down on the ground that, admitting a person of such dubious reputation would dent the party’s image and harm its prospects in the coming election. “He is a criminal and there is no place for him in my party. We will never allow such people to become a part of the SP,” the younger Yadav is reported to have remarked.

Although relatively inexperienced, the shrewd leader had grasped the importance of this symbolic act of rejection at a time when the voters of the State are aspiring for a Government that will not patronise the corrupt and the musclemen. But some party leaders like veteran socialist Mohan Singh, appeared not to have got the message. As party spokesman, he directly contradicted the junior Yadav and said DP Yadav was “clean”. Within hours he lost his job as spokesman, while Mr Khan hastily claimed he had nothing to do with promoting DP Yadav’s entry into the Samajwadi Party.

In the second instance, Mr Akhilesh Yadav scuttled the induction into the Samajwadi Party of Mr Haseemuddin Siddiqui, brother of senior BSP Minister and Ms Mayawati’s confidant, Naseemuddin Siddiqui. In doing so, he took on senior leaders of his party who were keen on delivering a body blow to the Chief Minister through this ‘coup’. The Samajwadi Party’s Uttar Pradesh chief’s contention was that the party would not benefit from embracing the brother of a Minister who has a ‘tainted’ image.

In both the cases, Mr Akhilesh Yadav challenged not just well-entrenched interests within the Samajwadi Party but, more importantly, the near hegemony of his uncle Shivpal Yadav, who had got used to having his way in the affairs of the party. Mr Shivpal Yadav had openly pushed for the induction of DP Yadav and Mr Haseemuddin Siddiqui, and but for Mr Akhilesh Yadav these two would now be riding the ‘bicycle’ — the Samajwadi Party’s election symbol. Political analysts see in the developments the beginning of the decline of Mr Shivpal Yadav in the party.

Besides asserting his dominance in party affairs, Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son has also been working steadily to reinvent the Samajwadi Party’s image — from that of a casteist and an outdated outfit which flogs the use of English and computers and exploits the Yadav vote-bank to an energetic organisation that understands the more inclusive aspirations of new India. To that end, he has done three things: First, he has begun using the social media to reach out to young urban voters; second, he has decided that the party must successfully break free from the stranglehold of caste and community vote-bank politics; and, third, he has promised that the corporate sector will be made a partner in the economic development of Uttar Pradesh if the Samajwadi Party comes to power. These are words that young voters connect with.

In an indication of the sort of organisation that Mr Akhilesh Yadav wants the Samajwadi Party to become, he said that he holds Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar as a role model. He remarked in a media interview, “Nitish Kumar has broken away from caste-based politics in Bihar. We too want to do that and fight the election on the development plank, to attract votes beyond caste.” At the moment, that’s wishful thinking. For such things are easier said than done.

While it is too early to say if he has the resilience to follow up on his promises, it is certain that Mr Akhilesh Yadav will face challenges from within the party and even the family in recasting the Samajwadi Party. Let’s see whether he succeeds or is eventually done in by his foes.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Politics is the art of sloganeering


Year 2011 ended with arguably the most devastating political statement to have come in recent times. Ridiculing the Congress-led UPA Government for running away from a vote in the Upper House on the Lokpal Bill on December 30, senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley, who is also Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, said of the act, “It was freedom at midnight on August 14, 1947. It was fleedom at midnight on December 30, 2011.” The remark may well set the tone for the confrontations that we will witness between the Government and the Opposition in 2012 and beyond till the next general election.

This was clearly an issue between the right and the wrong, and it brought the Left and the Right on the same page. But that will not always be the case on many other matters, where the two will clash on ideologies rather than on the rightness of the subject. Twentieth century American poet and author Richard Armour had once remarked, “Politics, it seems to me, for years, or all too long, has been concerned with right or left instead of right or wrong.”

But the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ are often perceptions more than a reality, and that is more so in the maddeningly complex political situation that we fondly refer to as the ‘vibrant and dynamic Indian democracy’. This complexity tears into conventional wisdoms and constructs vessels of theories that have a hollow base and collapse with the first hard rattle. But, never mind, political leaders are adept at manufacturing new vessels with even more hollow bases with a speed that perhaps only light can match.

The people, reduced to bemused bystanders in the swirling developments around them, are supposed to make sense of the chaos and vote consciously — or take sides in the daily political grind. What means do they have that will assist them in making such a crucial choice, besides their ‘sixth sense’ which they deploy in desperation more often than out of conviction about its accuracy? It’s here that slogans play a role.

Voters are generally swayed by ‘slogans’ that parties create and hard-sell and these slogans often become the face of the parties’ ideology. To put it more accurately, slogans often end up replacing a party’s ideology that, in any case, is either beyond the comprehension of the lay voter or not too different from that of a rival party’s. Mr Jaitley’s “fleedom” remark may have been an instant response to the fraud the UPA Government committed, but it has the potential to emerge as a political slogan for the party, with some touching-up, because it is at least original.

Slogans have changed the course of the country’s history during its struggle for independence, and thereafter, played a major role in the rise of political parties. ‘British, quit India’ became the call in every street and was on the lips of every Indian pining to be freed from foreign rule. On July 14, 1942, after the Cripps Mission failed, the Congress Working Committee approved a resolution which declared that “the immediate ending of the British rule in India is an urgent necessity both for the sake of India and for the success of the cause of United Nations”. This ponderous statement could have scarcely energised the people; what did were the three words — ‘British, quit India’ — that emerged following a call to the British by Mahatma Gandhi two months before the resolution came into being. He said, “Leave India to god. If this is too much then leave her to anarchy.” The phrase ‘Quit India’ was chosen by the Mahatma after he reportedly rejected the options: ‘Get out’ for being too offensive and ‘Retreat’ for being too mild.

After the country gained independence, slogans took on a new role. While they were as strident as before, they naturally became more party-specific. The causes these slogans reflected were not always national but also partisan. Nevertheless, they served their purpose. Mrs Indira Gandhi rode to power in 1971 on the slogan of “Garibi hatao”. As Mrs Gandhi was to explain: “My critics say ‘Indira hatao’. But I say, ‘Garibi hatao’.” The two words worked like magic although her opponents later mocked at her, saying she had succeeded in eliminating the poor but not poverty. Yet, ‘Garibi hatao’ remains one of the most successful political slogans.

Jayaprakash Narayan, who led the protest against Mrs Gandhi in the months preceding the 1975-77 Emergency, borrowed a line from celebrated Hindi writer Ramdhari Singh Dinkar: “Singhasan khaali karo, ki janta aati hai...” This became the powerful counterfoil to the Emergency regime’s slogan: “The leader is right, the nation’s future is bright!” Mrs Gandhi lost the 1977 general election.

Mrs Gandhi was to return with yet another strong poll line within a couple of years. Slamming the post-Emergency Governments led by Morarji Desai and Charan Singh, she asked the people to repose trust in a “Government that works”, that is, a Government led by her. The results of the 1980 poll vindicated the power of that slogan.

The subsequent arrival of regional parties which promoted caste over everything else changed the colour of political slogans. ‘DS4’, which in an elongated form read as Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti, was a precursor to what we now know as the Bahujan Samaj Party led by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati. That outfit and the BSP in the very early days came to be associated with a brazenly casteist slogan as a slap on the face of the so-called upper castes: “Tilak, tarazu aur talwar, inko maro joote char”.

But, while this offensive slogan fetched political gains for the BSP, Ms Mayawati soon realised it was inadequate to help maintain her hold over Uttar Pradesh’s politics, and that alienating powerful sections of society would eventually boomerang on her ambition. Deftly, she did a U-turn, and the BSP reinvented itself with a new, if completely contrasting, slogan spun around its election symbol, the elephant. This was: “ Hathi nahin Ganesh hai, Brahma Vishnu Mahesh hai ”. It was clearly meant to appease all sections of Hindus instead of only the Dalits. Interestingly, this slogan too worked wonders for Ms Mayawati, as the 2007 Assembly election showed. She managed to win over Brahmin voters, besides retaining her Dalit vote-bank.

However, long before Ms Mayawati burst on the scene, ‘casteist’ slogans existed, though they were more refined and open to multiple interpretations. For instance, Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna, a leader of immense political standing in Uttar Pradesh, more so in Allahabad, drew mileage from a specially crafted slogan, “Prayag ka chandan, Hemvati Nandan.” While the ‘chandan’ represented his Brahmin identity and pushed his political case among Brahmin voters, it also symbolised the fact that he was the pride of Allahabad.

The shrewd PV Narasimha Rao, who became the first Congress leader outside the Nehru-Gandhi family to complete five years in office as Prime Minister, attempted to reverse the trend of exploiting caste in sloganeering.

He gave the line, “Jaat par na pat par, mohar lagegi haath par”. But that went unheeded because the voters remained unconvinced by the sudden turnaround of the Congress which has always cultivated caste and communal vote-banks.