The way UPA 2 has lost authority, or what is better described in a wonderful Urdu word that defies fair translation, Iqbal, makes you wonder how the same leadership had been able to throw off the yoke of the Left and returned to power with even greater numbers. On its second anniversary now, UPA 2 looks more irreparably damaged than Rajiv Gandhi’s government was in its third. In a most incredible and frightening first in India’s constitutional history, an elected government has been hijacked by intellectual charlatans, former babu busybodies, has-beens and wannabes, even some assorted nutcases and loonies. Its ministers issue a panicky, precedent-setting notification to placate a man in white and cede Parliament’s right to law-making in a surrender worse than the Treaty of Versailles.
A month later the same ministers go crawling to the airport to prostrate themselves before a man in saffron, setting up directorates and committees to bring back the “four hundred lakh crore” of Indian black money from overseas. Just how ludicrous that figure is can be seen even by a class five child, once you remember that India’s current GDP is just Rs 59 lakh crore. But nobody is to question any of this. Or the fact that the same “wizard” in saffron promises that if his prescription is followed, all black money will return and the exchange rate will be fifty dollars to a rupee. That is, nearly a 2500 times increase. You can snigger, smirk, turn your face and laugh. But what is the point, because you ultimately surrender? Just as you had done when threatened by another maverick in white who believes drunks should be caned, and all voters are corrupt, and Narendra Modi personifies good governance.
You can choose who you want to surrender to and how in the belief that it buys you a reprieve for now, and that you can live to fight another day. But that is a vain, wishful fantasy of the politically vanquished. Which is exactly how this government has been looking. Surely we have seen past governments losing authority faster than this. Morarji’s Janata in its very first year (with Charan Singh’s and the RSS’s growing impatience) and Narasimha Rao’s in its second, with the Babri demolition. But never in India’s history has a government with a genuine majority and a strong political core surrendered the state’s sovereign constitutional authority and responsibility as this one has. What is even more dangerous, they have ceded this to just about five characters in fancy dress, in shades of white to saffron, representing Left, Right and the Centre. They all claim to have no political ambition, all love “democracy”, but just want to change the “system”. On whose mandate, nobody dares to ask, least of all the UPA, minus of course poor Digvijaya Singh, fighting a lonely battle in a lost cause, a forlorn, modern-day Jhansi ki Rani. These new “mass” leaders in fancy dress fight and compete bitterly amongst themselves, but have unanimity only on one thing: they must not first prove their popularity at any election. Elections, even in the world’s largest democracy, are only for us mortals. Are you suggesting that corrupt monstrosity for the divine? And, hello, did Mahatma Gandhi ever fight an election?
So what do we have for our new leadership now? A new pantheon consisting of a self-styled Mahatma Gandhi, a Vivekananda, a Sri Aurobindo and, well, if our society ever produced another neo-Maoist who draped himself in saffron, please remind me. Otherwise, we might just have one original here. And a government which won such an impressive mandate just two years ago, a coalition that can still sweep elections in so many states, has handed over the baton to them. Even God cannot save a country where such powers of blackmail have been ceded to sundry godmen. And when we have a ruling party behaving like the Indian army in retreat in 1962.
Time has also come now to junk all pretences and face the truth. The original blunder of outsourcing law-making and governance is the UPA’s or, more precisely, the Congress party’s. It invented a totally subversive and extra-constitutional idea of the NAC consisting of “civil society” activists and functioning as a super cabinet. Just like the Anna Hazare group, this consists of people never elected, and incapable of ever being elected. All we do not know is if Sonia’s civil society dudes are also as contemptuous of elections as Anna’s. But the principle was no different. You need men and women of integrity from “outside” the system, not “tainted” by politics (which is necessarily dirty), to keep an eye on a government of wretched politicians, even if led by an honest man. You need the NAC to make sure power does not go even to his head, and also to keep him off-balance by attacking his government and policies, and continuing to throw one idiotic law after another in his court. Why blame Anna Hazare when it is the Congress party itself that outsourced law-making to its darbari jholawallahs? This is not a team of modern-day Ambedkars, but mostly of IAS drop-outs and retirees who approach law-making with the “wisdom” of sincere undergrads. You have any doubts, take a look at the draft of the incredibly stupid Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill 2011 (www.nac.nic.in/pdf/pctvb_amended.pdf). A Modi or Togadia can see in a minute the wonderful opportunity it presents them. It is totally violative of the states’ rights, is subversive of the Constitution, and will never pass parliamentary or judicial scrutiny. But it will polarise people on a communal basis just when they seem to be getting over that sad past. This bill will not pass. But if the UPA continues to push it, it is guaranteed to polarise the Hindu vote and give the BJP a shot at power that any appeals to Ram Lalla cannot in 2014. This could indeed become Sonia Gandhi’s Shah Bano moment.
Laws apart, the idea of putting a non-governmental watch over your own government undermines the very idea of elected, constitutional democracy and the cue is being taken everywhere. By new Anna Hazares and Ramdevs, and by Congressmen all over the country. Surrender in fright is more infectious than chicken flu and the first to display fatal symptoms is Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. Petrified of a fasting Medha Patkar, just last week he set up a committee to inquire into an established slum rehabilitation project and included some senior-most Medha activists in the committee. Sheila Dikshit, one of the two re-electable Congress chief ministers in the country (Gogoi being the other), is also under assault from jholawallahs on her brave cash transfer scheme in lieu of PDS. Outsourcing governance to activists is an idea not many Congressmen are willing to resist. Let us see how long Dikshit can hold out.
You can choose to delude yourself, but that won’t change the fact that UPA 2 is now going rapidly downhill. By undermining its own government, the Congress has exposed its flanks, front and behind, in the hope that its darbari, establishment activists will fill that space. But this vacuum is far too big for them to fill, so the rest are trooping in too. The logic is simple: if your chosen activists can draft key laws without getting elected or any accountability, why can’t we? And so what if our leaders are five notables in fancy dress.
Sonia’s options are now clear. If she doesn’t like her government, it can change its leadership. Or she can dissolve her government and seek a fresh mandate. But if her objective is to win power again in 2014, she cannot carry on with a diminished, polarised, paralysed and demoralised government for three more years. She should, therefore, either dismantle the NAC or expand it into a much larger, purely advisory, think-tank-ish body, like the National Integration Council or the National
Security Advisory Board. Otherwise, just as NGOs moved into her government space through a silent coup, the BJP will move into her political space. She hasn’t got until 2014 to decide. Because if her government continues to go downhill, she would do well to remember an Abu Abraham cartoon in this newspaper during the Emergency: the rearview mirror in Indira Gandhi’s car, showing the word “elections” with the warning: “Objects in this mirror are closer than they seem.” Put simply, if the drift continues, 2014 could arrive in 2012.
Similarly, the prime minister has to choose from limited, but simple, options as well. He can take a leaf out of Vajpayee’s book. Faced with relentless attacks from the RSS, Vajpayee made it clear that he would have no more of it, and tested the belief that they needed him more than he needed them. He was able to save his government, his own beliefs and principles. Now the prime minister has to step out of the trenches and underline the fact that a country like India can never survive with a weakened prime minister. Most likely, he will have his way. But if he doesn’t, it may be time for him to think of doing what he may have so far thought unthinkable.