The People Win
The media and the politician. Or to fine-tune this, the media and the politician in power. There used to be a disconnect, but no longer. The two are on the same wavelength most of the time, catering to the rich and the famous, moving away from the substantial to the trivial, giving and taking sound bites in place of informed debate, and generally holding hands as they swing along together in Delhi as the real world passes by. Scratch my back, and I will scratch yours, is the mantra that keeps them together, with occasional differences barely taking the gloss off the new and hopefully great relationship.
It was partly because of this that the details of the strategic alliance being forged by the UPA government with the United States through the civilian nuclear energy agreement either escaped the attention of the media or was pushed aside to keep the happy partnership going. The Congress leadership, of course, decided in its wisdom and its arrogance, that it would go ahead with the nuclear deal regardless of the opposition from the majority in Parliament. Public opinion was discounted, even attacked ruthlessly, as nuclear scientists, civil servants and the journalists who dared oppose the deal were placed in the dock by an aggressive Congress. Motives were attributed as the Congress top bosses and their bureaucrats launched a campaign against those opposing the deal, with a viciousness that was calculated to kill the opposition.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi returned from the United States after celebrating Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary at the United Nations — wonder what his take would have been on that! — and went to a district in Haryana from where she described all opponents to the civilian nuclear energy agreement with the US as "enemies." Now she has said that she was not referring to the Left, only to political forces in Haryana! It was perhaps no coincidence that exactly when she was sounding the election bugle, her minister Pranab Mukherjee was sitting in Kolkata with CPI(M) veteran Jyoti Basu who the Congress perceives as the weakest link in the current Left opposition to the deal. It was only after Jyoti Basu also threw his hands up in sheer helplessness and said that there was little he could do to take the CPI(M) off the "delay the deal" track, that Mr Mukherjee let it be known, tentatively to the Left leaders at the joint UPA-Left meeting, that perhaps, just perhaps, the government might not operationalise the deal. But this was not before he had made yet another pitch to convince the Left leaders at the meeting to allow the government to move ahead with the talks with the IAEA.
The UPA allies are taking some of the credit now, particularly Lalu Prasad Yadav and Sharad Pawar. But it is no secret that till the last meeting they were supporting the nuclear deal with the same fervour as the Congress party, and had made it known to reporters that the Left was being unreasonable. It was only when it became clear that the CPI(M) with Prakash Karat at the helm was not going to cave in, that the government moved into reverse gear, and along with the allies is now trying to make a virtue out of necessity. No one is ready for a mid-term poll, certainly not Lalu Prasad Yadav faced with a resurgent Nitish Kumar in Bihar; or Sharad Pawar worried about the fading alliance with the Congress in Maharashtra. Being politicians wedded to the ground, they know that it is best to cling on to power for as long as possible, as the electorate is unpredictable and refuses to guarantee their morrow.
The Congress was being brazen. It had reckoned that the Left could be brought around, and in the final analysis would not pull the rug. Finally, it dawned to even the most obscure in the Congress party that this was not to be. Save the deal or save the government was the categorical message, and so after weeks of brinkmanship, the Congress party has again shifted gear. Both Singh and Sonia Gandhi used the Hindustan Times media leadership summit (the Ugly Indian was also a feted guest) to say that there was not going to be a mid-term poll, and that possibly the aam aadmi was more important than the nuclear deal. Dr Singh declared that rural employment would now be the focus, and while giving up the nuclear deal was a disappointment, he was still optimistic that good sense would prevail. Both tried to make the country forget that they had unashamedly pushed this deal that would tie India's strategic sovereignty to the United States, and rob her of the space required for independent decision making.
The loud talk — "we will improve our position, we will get 200 seats" — was just meant for the gullible in the party and the media, and clearly the Congress bosses knew that a mid-term poll might not necessarily bring the party back to power. And definitely not with the support of the more stable Left, who would have to be replaced by unpredictable entities such as the BSP. Ms Mayawati's recent outburst against the Congress could not have warmed the cockles of Mrs Sonia Gandhi's heart.
The lesson to be learnt from this entire episode is, one, the politicians should remember even in their arrogance that the country has a will that cannot be taken for granted; two, that determination and consistency along with integrity of the kind displayed by the Left parties through the tense weeks and months of negotiations always pays good dividends; three, coalitions can only be run with a certain humility and sensitivity to the popular will, and four, the yardstick of action has to remain the people and the nation and not individuals in power. The opponents of the nuclear deal, led by the Left parties, won a hard fought battle for the country's sovereignty — but this is still only the first step in what is going to be a long innings. Mid term elections remain very much on the anvil, if not in February-March, then later in the year.
The Congress party has moved itself into election gear. It is a gigantic exercise, to shift focus (however temporarily) from the glitz to the drab, from the rich to the poor, from the corporate to the aam aadmi. And the politician knows it better than others, that it cannot keep this focus on for too long. It will dry up the party (the honcho is not going to part with funds for a government preoccupied with rural employment), it will take away the fun and glamour (the parties will stop and what will Praful Patel, Kamal Nath and the rest do?), and besides, the media will protest. Aam aadmi does nothing for the TRP ratings, and everyone should know that by now. But then an election has to be contested, and won, and the poor and the deprived and the victimised still account for the majority of the electorate in India. After servicing the rich and the richer for three years, it is time to make the right noises for the poor and the poorer. So there is Rahul Gandhi talking of extending the national employment guarantee scheme to all of India. The minimum support price for wheat and rice has been hiked, petroleum prices are not going to be increased, and in Andhra Pradesh the Congress is now making rice available for Rs 2 a kilo. Like they say, it never rains but pours, and the poor voter is soaking in the downpour of benefits as he clutches on to the ballot determined to keep it dry.
So aam aadmi, revel in the few weeks of glory that are yours. You were being promised nuclear energy, although in 60 years they could never even give you plain energy, and at least that farce is over; you will be promised food, although in 60 years you have barely managed to scrape an existence; you will be promised drinking water, although you still trudge miles to fill your pots and your children die of cholera and gastroenteritis; you will be promised medicines, although you have never seen a real doctor in your life; you will be promised roads, although you spent the monsoons ever since you can remember wading through water to and from your villages; and they will all blame each other for your plight. At least, remember when they seek you for your favours, and confront you with their rhetoric, that the media at least is honest. It does not even pretend to care.