UPA II forgets the art of politics!
How can you tell when a government is in crisis? There are the obvious ways, I suppose. You can tell that a government is in trouble when it is on the verge of losing its majority. When its coalition appears to be cracking up. When its MPs begin to revolt. And so on.
But before the crisis becomes obvious and before everyone realises that the end is imminent, there is always a phase when you sense that things have now slipped out of control.
Politics is the art of the possible. Every government is constructed on fault lines. And every ministry is shaken by regular tremors. The art of politics lies in controlling the possibilities; in ensuring that the tremors never become earthquakes so massive that the entire house of cards collapses.
Let’s take the Vajpayee government. The fault lines were obvious. A.B.
Vajpayee and L.K. Advani had a tense and complicated relationship. The RSS was hostile to the liberal wing of the BJP. Vajpayee himself was never entirely at ease with Narendra Modi and was apprehensive of the damage that the Gujarat riots would do to his government. And so on.
The reason the government survived for as long as it did was because adroit political management ensured that no earthquakes occurred along those fault lines. Even if the cracks were always visible, there were no yawning gaps, no crevices and no descent into the chasm.
Ever since UPA II took office, those who watched the government closely recognised the fault lines. The Congress party was uneasy with the PMO. Manmohan Singh felt that the party was interested in cheap populism and did not have India’s long-term interests at heart. The UPA was much too tolerant of the DMK’s corruption and looked away when the DMK ran the telecom ministry as a giant ATM from which its members made frequent withdrawals. Pranab Mukherjee and P. Chidambaram did not trust each other. Mamata Banerjee was an unpredictable ally. The party was following a high-risk strategy in UP. There was a crisis brewing in the defence ministry because A.K. Antony, obsessed with seeming clean, would not take any decisions for fear that the ministry would be accused of corruption.
Almost everyone in politics was aware of these factors. And yet, people believed that the UPA would be able to juggle these contradictions and to withstand the tremors because that is what good politicians do. They try and paper over the cracks and do whatever is possible.
The crisis in the UPA is not that the government is fighting with the army chief or that Mamata Banerjee is about to jump ship or even that A Raja is in jail.
The true measure of the crisis is that wherever there was once a crack, a crevice has now developed. What should have been a mere tremor has turned into an earthquake. And everything that could possibly go wrong has not just been allowed to go wrong, it has got much worse than anyone thought possible.
Take this week’s crisis. Even General V.K. Singh’s worst critics will tell you that he is an honest man. And any impartial observer will concede that corruption has seeped into the army and influenced defence procurement. Those who understand the defence ministry will tell you that A.K. Antony’s problem is that he does not confront an unpleasant situation head-on. Instead, he vacillates and hopes that the problem will go away. When there is a whiff of corruption about a defence purchase, he simply puts off the entire purchase rather than try and find out who the crook is and clean up the process – no matter what the cost to India’s defence preparedness is.
None of this is new. And nearly all of it is well-known within political circles. Over a year ago, a retired official who occupied one of the most senior jobs in the security establishment in his day went to see Manmohan Singh. He told him that Antony had to be forced to push ahead with procurement. India was falling behind. And our security could not suffer only because Antony wanted to be seen as clean.
Though the Prime Minister was, from all accounts, concerned and attentive, nothing really changed. In his own way, Manmohan Singh is not unlike Antony: when he is faced with an unpleasant situation, he sits tight and hopes that the problem will go away.
In a sense, the current crisis was a bomb, ticking away in the corridors of power. Everyone knew that the army chief was unhappy with the government and ready to go to the press. Everyone knew that our defence preparedness had lagged behind. And yet, nobody did anything.
Nobody managed the army chief before he went public. Nobody found a way of cleaning up the army so that procurement could go ahead with a minimum of corruption. Instead, everyone in the UPA just sat tight.
The government is hoping that the current crisis will go away. It believes that General V.K. Singh has damaged his own credibility by going to the Supreme Court about his date of birth and losing. The Congress also believes that opposition parties will be unwilling to make political capital out of an issue that involves national security.
Perhaps the government is right. Perhaps this crisis will go away.
But it doesn’t really matter.
There will be another crisis next month. And yet another one the following month. What’s worse is that everyone will see the crises coming but will do nothing about it. Instead, like a rat paralysed with fear by the hissing of a cobra, the government will stand still, shiver slightly and wait for the inevitable venomous bite.
You know that a government is failing when it forgets what political management is about; when it takes no pre-emptive action; when it fails to anticipate attacks that everyone else can see coming; and when it does not learn from its mistakes.
That is the true tragedy of UPA II. Despite boasting of a Prime Minister who is honest and brilliant and a Cabinet full of first-rate intellects (Chidambaram, Pranab, Jairam Ramesh, Salman Khurshid, Kapil Sibal, etc.) the government fails time after time, week after week, in crisis after crisis, because it has forgotten the art of politics.