By M J Akbar
Any democracy is hobbled without an Opposition. Are we condemned to replicate Haryana at the national level — where a government wheezes, gasps and limps triumphantly to the finish line because there is no other horse in the race?
Since the BJP has not finished its debate on 1947, it will be some time before it reaches 2009. With the Left neutered, and the Middle chasing its tail around a cemetery, what options does a voter have in the meantime?
The Left, which could have been taken seriously had it taken itself seriously, reminds one of an anecdote which should be better-known. The ever-punctual Comrade Gorbachev, who huffed and puffed so hard that he brought the whole Soviet house down, was once late for a meeting with a French delegation. He explained to his guests that he had been delayed by a problem in agriculture. When did the problem begin, asked the solicitous French. ‘‘In 1917,’’ replied Gorbachev.
Any democracy is hobbled without an Opposition. Are we condemned to replicate Haryana at the national level — where a government wheezes, gasps and limps triumphantly to the finish line because there is no other horse in the race? Haryana is not a particularly reassuring template. In the turbulence between 1967 and 1972, its ‘aya ram-gaya ram’ defections strategy infected democracy so badly that it destroyed the credibility of non-Congress parties. It is remarkable that Bhajan Lal, who once defected to the Congress with all his MLAs and the office typewriter, should still be a player in state elections. Now that he has allied with Mayawati, he can legitimately claim to have seen everything, been everywhere. She must have been a child when he was chief minister. However, nostalgia does not buy votes. Votes go to those who sell a future, not those who re-brand the past.
Nature and politics have one thing in common: they both abhor a vacuum. In some states, the Congress is doing its best to create its own Opposition. It has firmly rejected another pathetic overture from Lalu Prasad Yadav. Yadav has so much egg on his face that he can breakfast continuously from now till the next assembly polls. In Maharashtra, the Congress has begun to taunt its ally Sharad Pawar as the genie who bottled the sugar and opened the cap on price rise. The Congress is relishing a stalemate in which its primary intention is to make its mate look stale. Pawar’s reaction would make a sheep look sheepish.
It is useful to remember, however, that some sheep have been known to change their clothing at the opportune moment. The Congress has, cleverly, taken out some insurance by investing in the next generation: the daughters of Pawar and P A Sangma have a much better equation with Rahul Gandhi than the fathers have with Mrs Sonia Gandhi.
Although Congress numbers are less than half of what Rajiv Gandhi carried into the Lok Sabha in 1985, the comatose inertia of Opposition parties has convinced most Congress leaders that they can replicate Rajiv Gandhi’s achievement in the general elections of 2014. Moreover, the Opposition leaders are two decades older, some having fought their last battles and others in their penultimate round, while their leader will be fresh and 44.
More important, the major Opposition parties seem trapped in either geographical or ideological limitations, with their cadre having become part-asset and part-liability. Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose political skills should not be underestimated in a crisis, and who put them on display in a feisty performance in the last Lok Sabha session, has been unable to grow outside Uttar Pradesh. The ‘Yadav’ alliance with Lalu slips continually on the quicksand of the latter’s temperament. The BJP has reinforced its image of conflict by serial civil wars that are breathtaking for their irrelevance. The Left has slipped to a point where its candidate lost her deposit in a Kolkata seat because no one in Bengal understands what Buddhadev Bhattacharya represents anymore, apart from a fibreless diet of good intentions.
The situation is akin to 1985-86. But nature, averse to a vacuum, then threw up an individual to serve as a catalyst. A V P Singh can only emerge from the centre of the spectrum. A claimant from Right or Left has to re-position himself. Atal Bihari Vajpayee became acceptable because he stepped left of the BJP on social issues, and right of the Marxists on economic policy. That is where the sweet spot of Indian politics is located.
Individual dynamics require special circumstances, not to mention the heavy propulsion of hidden political boosters. Singh succeeded because he had terribly long arms; he held the CPM by one hand, and the BJP by the other, while he reinvented himself as an honest politician, sympathetic to minority concerns. It required too much heavy engineering and the end product was so unstable that it kept Delhi politics off-balance for a decade.
History does not repeat itself, but does it imitate itself? The answer will take a while.
-Appeared in Times of India - August 30, 2009