Politics and its discontents

The solution is always more democracy
Idealists, never content with a good idea, insist on distillation towards purer variations. One would have thought that Churchill ended the debate about democracy with his pithy reminder that while it could be awful, everything else was worse. But ever since the savage became noble enough to share power on some basis other than physical strength or economic stranglehold, the search for “total democracy” has been as relentless as it is illusory. Purity is the privilege of heaven; earth, alas, is all about varieties of putrefaction.
Indian variety can get odorous. An election begins with arbitrary selection. Candidates are named by a leader. The voter merely chooses from among the chosen. Merit is rarely the primary qualification; loyalty is, followed by the compulsions of demographics. As the stakes rise, and we move into the rarefied regions of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the complexities multiply if the environment is unsettled. The only satisfying by-product is that the process becomes as compelling a story as the election itself.
An election can be only as clear or confused as the state of the electorate. If the people of India were choosing the next president, there would be enviable clarity. The establishment candidate would lose. But votes will be cast by MPs and MLAs; roughly, the polity. Since the political class is in disarray, the presidential poll cannot be in array. No one is in command of numbers. The Congress, for reasons best known to itself, assumed that it could live above the reach of growing public anger and still control events by a wave of Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s magic wand. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee have drained the magic out of this wand by telling Congress that omnipotence may work with gods, but is not sustainable in human affairs.
Nothing is an accident in politics. President Abdul Kalam’s name did not emerge from a conjurer’s hat. The leaders of the coup that stunned Congress and maimed UPA knew that NDA wanted to re-elect Kalam but did not have the ability which is why it used silence as strategy. They have placed dynamite under UPA, since Kalam is the one person Congress cannot accept except under huge duress. The fuse is with Mulayam and the matchbox with Mamata.
They also have a pretty decent argument. Kalam brings both consensus and stature to the table. Another significant UPA partner, DMK, cannot ignore the fact that he is Tamil, just as five years ago Shiv Sena could not ignore the fact that Mrs Pratibha Patil was Marathi. Sharad Pawar has been insisting on consensus for weeks. Consensus, it should be noted, is not the same thing as unanimity.
The Congress refused to see the obvious because complacence is a blindfold and eight years is a long time in power. It even took a while to understand why Dr Manmohan Singh was on the Mulayam-Mamata list. The hope that this might give Sonia Gandhi a bit of wriggle room evaporated when, within hours, the PM firmly rejected the option. This was his own decision. By then Mulayam’s spokesmen had told the country on television that their real purpose was to push the PM upstairs so that someone more competent could take his place. The implications are uncomplicated. SP and TMC MPs can no longer support a Manmohan Government in Parliament-if there is a next session of this Parliament.
The Congress could not even see what was widely discussed along the political grapevine. We are witnessing the play for not just one election, but for two. The strategies move on parallel lines, before they intersect. The second is the more important battle ahead: The next General Election. Mulayam has been totally transparent. He held a parliamentary party meeting to choose his candidates for a Lok Sabha campaign. He wants them early. He knows that time can only diminish his prospects. If UPA cannot get its candidate as President, the Government cannot survive.
This is only the first, if dramatic, bit of evidence of the impact that a Mulayam-Mamata partnership can have on Indian politics. Their first objective is to make Congress yesterday’s story. Their second is to win between 60 and 70 seats in a 2013 poll, and, with help from smaller parties, form a bloc of 100 or more MPs. This will give them decisive bargaining power in the next alliance.
UPA can pretend that this is business as usual, and the PM blithely continue on his 10-day tour to the more exotic parts of the world, but his Government has become about as fragile as that of Deve Gowda or Inder Gujral after Congress withdrew its support. When democracy slides off into confusion, there is only one solution: more democracy. Time for fresh elections.

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.