When a joint family begins to creak at the joints, the neighbourhood wakes up. Gossip time. Domestic quarrels seep through porous walls and become the stuff of public speculation in the teashop. Question of the day: How long will brothers survive under the same roof? Don’t get fooled by looks. The spectator is polite before the patriarch as he pretends to convey, in muted tones, that all is well. Behind his back the mockery is brutal. A political patriarch can survive the people’s anger, however virulent it might become. But no one in power can survive ridicule. Watch out for the knife, but beware the cartoon.
The mortal danger before the second UPA government is not collapse, but acid erosion by caricature. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a national hero three summers ago, is being taunted in SMS space as winner of this year’s Oscar for best acting PM. Every image is a reflection of his reputation. A buffoon who suddenly sounds normal wins surprised admiration. Conversely, a hero who slips is judged by the peaks he once conquered. The voter who elected Dr Singh in 2009 because he had scaled Kanchenjunga expected him to reach Everest by 2012. Instead he has been told that plans have been altered, and let’s all settle down to enjoy the swamp because the telecommunications chap ran off with the money and is on holiday in Tihar Jail.
The voter is puzzled by more than one inconsistency. He has delivered, more often than not, a decisive mandate, fooling pundits and surprising politicians. He wants, in exchange, a strong government. Instead, victors behave as if they have been weakened by victory instead of being strengthened by it. This vacillating disease extends beyond the Congress. In Karnataka, the BJP has insulted a historic mandate with a pathetic display of petty-minded, vicious squabbling. In Andhra, the Congress destroyed its opposition, and then destroyed itself: P Chidambaram flipped and then flopped over Telangana; Rajasekhara Reddy died in a tragic crash; and the party imposed an ageing successor who could not retire too soon, followed by a younger man who has just given himself a 400 percent pay hike. Governance died with Rajasekhara Reddy.
Congress has fumbled so ineptly that voters are laughing through their tears. What did Akhilesh Yadav do with his magnificent endorsement? Little could be more symbolic of compromise than putting a jailbird in charge of jails. It is possible that Akhilesh has a sense of humour, but if this is a joke, it is brittle. The voter wants the Akhilesh who refused to give strongman D P Yadav a ticket, rather than the one who smiled while felons took the oath of office.
To be fair, Akhilesh has time. He will be judged by his second Cabinet rather than his first. He has to make adjustments for his inheritance. But he does not have too much time, for Indian democracy has entered its most volatile phase. Weak governance is being punished all over the country. The difference between weak and strong government is uncomplicated. One instance will serve. When DMK blackmailed the Prime Minister over India’s position on the American resolution in the United Nations on atrocities against civilians during the closing stages of the war against LTTE, Dr Singh had a clear choice between reason and capitulation. He could have sympathised with the DMK’s concerns, and offered to discuss options with his partners in government, but asserted unambiguously that India’s foreign policy could not be held hostage to coalition compulsions. Instead, he became “inclined” towards the DMK’s view.
In a ruminative afterthought later, Dr Singh suggested that his allies in UPA are a headache. But Dr Singh’s ills are not the work of allies; he has been humiliated by his own party, Congress. During the UP election campaign Cabinet ministers bragged that Dr Singh was a dispensable occupant of Rahul Gandhi’s throne. The Prime Minister said nothing. Mrs Sonia Gandhi did nothing. How long would they have survived if they had demanded that Dr Singh should replace Mrs Gandhi as Congress president? If a serpent with a forked tongue stars in the first Bible story, then parricide is the theme of the second. Cain killed his brother Abel: Not a persuasive argument for joint families.
Conflict is a bigger temptation than cooperation. A coalition does not disappear after a sudden explosion, but weakens through a series of flare-ups searching for conflagration. Political parties, whether Congress in Delhi or BJP in Karnataka, persuade themselves that time and largesse of office will stave off disaster. Delusion is the last refuge of the addict. If those in power do not go to the people once they have lost their moral authority, the people will come for them. No need to check which is more fatal. A foreign friend asked, over lunch the other day, about the Indian government. I assured him that there was an India, but I could not be equally certain that there was an Indian government.
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.