Bandwagon politics


The relationship between an egg and a pudding is the definitive test within the art of cooking. A chef knows when to leave well enough alone. Overegging the pudding is not just a culinary mishap. It can ruin a great deal that has been achieved.

Anna Hazare captured the popular imagination because of two ingredients in his menu. He addressed a pervasive crime. Corruption has seen many avatars in six decades of Indian democracy. It has now burst through the once elitist dam of cozy glad-handing between businessman and political don, and poisoned the people’s river as much as the village well. It is no longer exclusive or evasive. That is why the response cut across class, caste and religious lines.

It also bridged the partisan divide because Anna refrained from treating any party as holier than thou. Opposition colours fluttered more freely at the venue of his fast only because a ruling party does not protest against itself. A government bears the brunt of any crusade because power lends itself to corruption. It is difficult, but not impossible, to be corrupt when out of power. The tricolour that the young wore as a symbol of protest was therefore the khadi of the national flag, not the standard of the Congress. Conversely, you would not have seen too much saffron in the air if Hazare had been fasting at Cubbon Park in Bangalore.

This is the contradiction that threatens to skewer L K Advani’s proposed chariot ride against corruption. It will be a journey without a specific destination. As an individual, Advani can take legitimate comfort in the fact that he resigned from Parliament when the Narasimha Rao government accused him of taking bribes from a businessman at election time, and returned to the Lok Sabha only after he was exonerated by the courts. But he is not setting out in 2011 to vindicate his personal reputation. He is also leader of the BJP. He would not be so naïve as to suggest that BJP has never touched any tainted money. And if he did, no one would believe him.

As a political vehicle, BJP has gained much mileage out of the Anna campaign. But this is collateral benefit. The moment it tries to take ownership of honesty, it is inviting trouble. The parties which coalesced into Janata benefited similarly in 1977 from Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement in 1974 and 1975 but they were prevented from making their share of aggravating mistakes by Mrs Indira Gandhi, who threw their leaders into jail and surrounded them with the glow of temporary martyrdom. No one is going to grant opposition parties a similar favour in 2011.

There is the parallel danger of a yatra epidemic in Uttar Pradesh, where politics is on the verge of becoming a tour guide. As is obvious, these are road shows to raise electoral capital. Their nature is brittle. If the electorate is turned on by the sincerity of Hazare, it can also be put off by the tokenism of any bandwagon.

Narendra Modi has found a unique reason for weakening his health by abstaining from food for three days. This will strengthen Gujarat, he says. The last time anyone checked, including with the Union government in Delhi, Gujarat has been pretty muscular during the decade when Modi ate three meals a day without a break for any kind of fast. If he wants to diet a bit now its purpose is personal, not regional. Word of caution: it is much more sensible to travel step by step from Ahmedabad to Delhi. When you rise on a pole vault, you never know where you might land.

Is it possible that BJP leaders, convinced that the game with Congress is essentially over, have already begun to compete between themselves? That would be dreadfully premature. This opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings, and the lady has a title: Election Commissioner. There is always time in politics to make mistakes. Moreover, time is not neutral. It is generally biased in favour of the establishment.

The acquisition of power is also a process. The BJP should use time to consolidate alliances with past, present and potential partners. It cannot form a government alone. It needs to construct a maximal Bihar-style network of relationships driven by a minimum programme of good governance, which are sustainable only because they abjure emotionalism. The space for manoeuvre in democracy is never large enough to encourage undue optimism.

Moral science lesson number one: if you don’t take the egg off the pudding, you will get egg on your face.

The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.