Has the time come for the Congress high command to issue notices to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his virtual deputy Pranab Mukherjee and his principal interlocutor for officially unofficial dialogue Kapil Sibal, for gross violation of discipline? If it cannot muster up the courage to censure its own PM, it could always expel general secretary Digvijay Singh. The party Singh wants to send Baba Ramdev to prison or perdition, whichever is nearer. The government Singh believes that acrobatic subservience by four ministers in the VIP lounge of Delhi airport, rather than within the more private environment of a drawing room, before the crusader-Baba, is the way forward to an honest India in which every politician glistens with moral fervor, and anyone giving or taking a bribe gets the noose he deserves.
It must be the summer. The government’s brain has melted. Whatever else may be your view of Baba Ramdev, you have to be a bit soft to believe he can be bribed by flattery. The Baba has not risen from a bicycle in Haryana to a private jet by being gullible. He is playing for much higher stakes.
The Prime Minister had two options when confronted by a “fast unto death”. He could either negotiate with a man who had everything to gain by confrontation; or he could have gone over Baba Ramdev’s head, as it were, and spoken directly to the India that was lining up in support of the Baba, not just in Delhi but in every small town. Better still, he could have done both; negotiate at a minimalist level, and address India’s core concern comprehensively, decisively. The multiple negotiations with Ramdev have not only raised the latter’s stature in public life, but also ensured that the credit for any decision will go not to Dr Singh’s government but to the man who generated a midsummer day’s thunderstorm.
Pressure is guaranteed to ensure mistakes in decision-making. Dr Manmohan Singh would have handled pressure from Opposition parties, but is unable to deal with parallel stress from two different, but inter-linked points. The anger of the people has derailed governance. But his most difficult challenge is neither from the people nor from a crusader; it is from a faction within Congress that derives its power from proximity to Mrs Sonia Gandhi. Digvijay Singh is the main spokesman of this faction, which is why he has the freedom to offer a continuous stream of alternative policy advice, on every matter from Assam to Kashmir, depending on the news of the day. Digvijay Singh has done more to weaken the authority of Dr Manmohan Singh than anyone else; and a mute Prime Minister’s helplessness before this onslaught only confirms the power equations within today’s Congress.
Mrs Sonia Gandhi has also empowered her parallel Cabinet, the NAC, which believes that Dr Singh’s Cabinet and Parliament should listen to its instructions. Some of its members specialize in pomposity when they are not heckling the Prime Minister. The strategy is transparent: to snatch credit if the government does anything right, and turn stridently accusatory if the government makes a mistake.
The BJP has to do nothing to destabilize the Manmohan Singh government, which is crumbling under the pressure of internal contradictions. Opposition parties need to do nothing except wait. Once upon a time they did not know how to. Now they have learnt.
Inevitable question: how long can a dysfunctional government totter around? Technically, forever [caveat: forever comes in 2014, the year of the next scheduled general elections]. The mathematics of this Parliament works in favor of the establishment. M. Karunanidhi may publicly rue the poor choice of friends he has made, meaning the Congress, but politically there is nothing he can do. Potential new allies are in no hurry to touch a DMK toxic with corruption charges. Regional animosities in other states create a curious algebra. It would take some catastrophe, for instance, to bring Mulayam Singh Yadav’s SP and Mayawati’s BSP on the same side of the voting platform in Parliament. But is this impossible?
Dr Manmohan Singh’s government is not in any danger of being washed away by some sudden flood or devastated by an earthquake; its foundations are being eroded by inbred worms. Dr Singh is flashing a sword, slashing the heart of a former Cabinet colleague here, breaking the arm of a private sector executive, which makes for temporary political theater. What he needs is very powerful pesticide, to be sprayed at home. The disease of corruption is not limited to enemies or allies who might have become dispensable. The Congress seems to believe that it can get away by speaking in multiple voices, each customized for whichever audience is in the hall.
Baba Ramdev has a significant advantage over the Congress in this test of wills. He has nothing to lose. The Congress does: it could lose power.