Friday, June 22, 2012

Politics of deceit and betrayal

(First published in The Pioneer dated June 21, 2012)


The unsavoury drama that preceded the announcement by the Congress of Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature as the next President of the country has left a bad taste in the mouth of even the hardened cynical watchers of Indian politics. There is no disputing the fact that Mr Mukherjee is an excellent choice. He has all the right credentials and the credibility to occupy the post which in the last five years has been demeaned by the incumbent President. So, his likely elevation has to be welcomed. What should be condemned is the deceitful conduct of the Samajwadi Party in the entire episode.
The print and the electronic media have virtually glossed over the brazen betrayal by Mulayam Singh Yadav. Emboldened by the media’s muted criticism, the SP chief has been going around justifying his U-turn. But nothing that he says sounds credible. In fact, Mr Yadav must stop the exercise and admit that he has been true to his image of being a turncoat and an untrustworthy politician. Indeed, it’s better to do business with the devil than with the SP chief.
Look at the sequence of events: First, Mr Yadav and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee jointly address a Press conference after the latter met Congress president Sonia Gandhi to discuss the presidential candidates. Mr Yadav tells the media that his (and Ms Banerjee’s) first choice is APJ Abdul Kalam. The Trinamool Congress chief informs that Ms Gandhi had proposed Mr Mukherjee’s name as the Congress’s first choice. Now, since both Mr Yadav and Ms Banerjee publicly came out with Mr Kalam’s name after the Congress had offered Mr Mukherjee for Rashtrapati Bhavan, it was clear that Mr Yadav had rejected the Congress’s choice. But, less than 24 hours of that very public and categorical announcement, the SP chief had begun to backtrack. While Ms Banerjee in a principled stand stuck to the position, Mr Yadav abruptly distanced himself from her and fell in line with the Congress’s decision.
Mr Yadav now wants us to believe that he had initially endorsed Mr Kalam’s candidature because the Congress was hesitant to openly name the Union Minister for Finance’s name. That is rubbish. The Congress president had clearly told Ms Banerjee that Mr Mukherjee was her party’s first choice. Mr Yadav was aware of this and he mentioned that in the joint Press conference with the Trinamool Congress leader. Yet he had pitched for Mr Kalam. It is clear that he exploited Ms Banerjee’s anti-Congressism to strengthen his leverage with the Congress. He knew that the Congress would quickly open a channel of communication with him after the Press conference — and the Congress did — and he could then use the occasion to extract his pound of flesh, if not immediately then at a deferred date. We will know soon what the deal is that has been struck between the SP chief and the Congress.
Ms Banerjee may have many faults. She is mercurial and unpredictable. At times she is also unreasonable. But she is certainly not a wily and scheming politician that Mr Yadav is. It is now fashionable to say that the Trinamool Congress chief has been “outsmarted” by the SP chief. But that is an inaccurate assessment because she had never imagined that Mr Yadav would plot an entirely different script behind her back. Had she to know that, had she then to make a counter-move to check him, and had she to fail in that attempt, we could have concluded that she had been outsmarted. Ms Banerjee trusted the SP leader and that trust has been betrayed. This is politics, yes, but not the kind of politics that Ms Banerjee is proficient in. Hopefully, she has learned some lessons from the episode.
Of course, the West Bengal Chief Minister should have known better than to have put faith in Mr Yadav in the first place. A political commentator remarked on a television talk show that anti-Congressism was in the SP leader’s DNA. He was fondly hoping that Mr Yadav would stand by Ms Banerjee in the face of Congress’s pressure on him. But that particular strain in the DNA which he had discovered has not been in evidence in recent years. In 2008, the Samajwadi Party had bailed out the Congress-led UPA Government during the trust vote. Since then, the party under Mr Yadav’s leadership has been extending support to the Government from outside under various — generally dubious — pretexts. Although Congress leaders bitterly opposed the SP in the recently held Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, calling it names and even tearing the SP’s manifesto at public meetings, Mr Yadav thought nothing of cosying up to the Congress soon after the election result was out. He shared the centre-stage with Ms Gandhi at the dinner hosted by the party to mark the completion of three years of UPA2 in office. And, his party continues to support a Government that by his own admission is mired in scams.
It is a travesty of justice that the media should have been so generous to the disgraceful act of Mr Yadav, with some sections even recording his betrayal as an “astute” political move. On the other hand, Ms Banerjee, who wears her heart and her politics on her sleeve, and whose only fault has been that she trusted the crafty SP leader, has been heaped with ridicule.
The media informed the people that the Congress had “called her bluff” and that she had been “cut to size”. But she had never been bluffing; her stand was for real —like it or not. As for being cut to size, the fact is that she is a formidable politician who will remain strong even if she quits the UPA. Ms Banerjee is a mass leader who cannot be remote-controlled by the Congress high command.
Why did the Congress reach out to the Samajwadi Party chief after the joint Press conference and not to Ms Banerjee, who is part of the UPA? The Congress knew that it was easier to ‘manage’ Mr Yadav. The Congress has no issue to threaten or cajole Ms Banerjee with. She has a starch-clean image and does not need the Congress’s support to run her Government in West Bengal. The only thing the Congress can do to retaliate is to hold back the financial assistance that Ms Banerjee has been demanding from the Centre for her State, and make life difficult for her regime.
But, since Ms Banerjee has demonstrated time and again that she will not be cowed down even by that threat, the Congress decided to work on Mr Yadav who, incidentally, had cases against him of accumulating assets disproportionate to his known sources of income. They can rather easily be reopened by the Congress-led regime if it so wants.

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