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THE HANGMANíS CALL
- Afzal Guru was the answer to the prayers of the strategists

The hush-hush hanging of Afzal Guru is the bellwether. The Congress, it would seem, has made up its mind; it might as well take the poll plunge later this year, rather than wait for 2014. The party has been running scared for quite some time; it had every reason to be doing so. The government it runs in New Delhi has been under continuous strain, on account of both internal and external factors at work. It reeks of corruption, its economic policy framework has gone comprehensively haywire. On the one hand, spiralling prices are severely affecting overwhelming sections of the electorate; on the other had, a blind faith in export-led growth has led to a plummeting of GDP growth. The less said of the trends in the social development index the better. Interest groups close to the regime must have done their pickings; they too are only fully aware that elections are round the corner and the outcome could be a toss-up.

A series of state assembly elections held over the past months has brought little cheer to the Congress. Particularly Uttar Pradesh, the most crucial of all states, continues to mock at the party. Despite the gushing outlay of the Nehru-Gandhi charisma and investment of countless resources, it remains in the league of minor parties in the state. At the national level, fissures within the Bharatiya Janata Party have lifted the spirit of the Congress, but just barely, for instance in Karnataka. The story in the rest of the southern states is uniformly bleak, even in Kerala, where an important party functionary, who is also the deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha, is embroiled in a lurid court case.

Andhra Pradesh, which used to be almost a pocket borough of the Congress for some years, poses the grimmest dilemma over both. What to do with the raucous demand for a separate state of Telangana, and how to stem the surging popularity of the politically ambitious son of the former Congress chief minister who died in a helicopter crash? Locking up the young pretender on the basis of charges filed by the CBI has actually helped his popularity to soar by leaps and bounds. Whatever happens in the next few months, it would look most unlikely, so that the kind of runaway success in the Lok Sabha elections in Andhra Pradesh it had registered on the previous three occasions could be repeated by it in the forthcoming poll.

For the rest of the country and more specifically for Aryavarta, it would be a story compounded of three bits. The urban and, in part, rural elite monopolizing the bonanza of economic liberalization will distribute their favours largely between the two major national parties. Contests in the constituencies where these comfortably placed dominate are likely to be close. The second lot of constituencies envelop the caste-based regions, where the regional parties can be expected to be extraordinarily zealous of protecting their bases. Finally, there will be the east and the far west, where, while the national parties will be somewhat off the camera, they will watch keenly the prospects of lesser parties and the latterís worthwhileness as possible coalition partners at the Centre.

However, the big uncertainty will be over the magnitude of support that will sustain the two major national parties. The Congress and the BJP together had polled roughly 45 per cent of the total votes cast in the Lok Sabha poll in 2009. There is no way of vouchsafing whether that proportion remains undisturbed or has shrunk further. Any shrinkage would spell additional strain on both the Congress and the BJP in their effort to put together a viable coalition government under the hegemony of either of them. It would be quite on the cards for a Mulayam Singh Yadav, Jayalalithaa or Mayavati to lodge his or her claim to be the nationís prime minister.

There will, of course, also be such curiosums as West Bengal with a chief minister on the rampage. She may be giving every indication of being hell-bent on self destruction. But, thanks to her, the lumpen proletariat have, for the first time in the country, gained control of a state, and they will not surrender easily what they have won. They could strike back with ferocity and the outcome could be, besides gory violence and chaos, winning for themselves at least a dozen seats in the Lok Sabha polls, so that she too could have a seat in the bargaining counter.

The aggregate electoral picture will be a compendium of a tense series of calculations of caste factors and hectic lubrication of individual segments of the electorate through executive and legislative decisions. In the public debates to ensue in the weeks and months preceding the polls, all thoughts will concentrate on gestures either humdrum or of major import for swaying the arithmetic of psephology. No time will get wasted on worrying over the phenomenon of GDP growth yielding zero employment. Poll polemics will also steer clear of themes like the pros and cons of subsidies for essential commodities, the necessity or otherwise of an effective public distribution system covering the entire nation on the merits and demerits of controlling movements in the external capital account.

Rest assured, politicians of nearly all hues are, these days, frightened to discuss ideas, principles and doctrines. They are also reluctant to consider long-term implications of phenomena. They care for relatively simple things. For example, for the next few weeks, speculation in all quarters will focus on the extent of alienation of the supposedly Muslim vote-bank across the country from the Congress because of the Afzal-Guru factor, and whether it might or might not be more than good by an inflow of the so-called hard-core Hindutva vote into the bag of the ruling party at the Centre. The latter is, in all seasons, a secular party, but its secularism is tempered with reasoned judgment when the occasion arises.

It was most admirably plotted. Afzal Guruís family should not nurture any resentment, the government could not help what it did when an opportunity arose for effecting a coup, which could improve the prospects of the ruling regime. The Hindutva vote is still assumed to be the biggest of prizes, and the hanging of the Kashmiri zealot could make a most useful contribution towards that end, particularly if it could coincide with crores of devout Hindus taking the dip at the Kumbh Mela and, what do you know, the Congress president herself joining the holy affairs.

Afzal Guru was the answer to the prayer of the New Delhi strategists. The rest of the miserable lot waiting for the hangmanís call did not have exciting credentials, they were run-of-the-mill rapists and murderers. Guru was different; the crime for which the Supreme Court administered him the most extreme verdict had the right mixture of espionage and conspiracy with Pakistan, the Hindu ego would delight at his hanging the Hindutva vote, swaying towards the prospective BJP candidate.

It is obviously the governmentís fervent wish not to be misunderstood by Guruís family. His hanging was needed for the purpose of the script. He was, so to say, a martyr to a cause. If only the imagination is stretched a little, by being hanged when he was hanged he atoned for the crime he had committed against India.

The authorities managed the proceedings with quiet competence. The human rights crowd did not need to be taken seriously, the valley of Kashmir would be in turmoil for a few days, its chief minister would feel betrayed by New Delhi, but, after all, he has nowhere else to go. The supposed irregularities that besmirched the rushed hanging would raise some queries in legal circles: but these could be taken well in their stride. As regards the intimation about the hanging reaching late to Guruís family, ah well, everybody knows how the postal system works these days.

With the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in full vigour, Kashmirís anger at the hanging of its native son would be duly taken care of. In any case, any instigation from across the border is most unlikely. Pakistan is having enough internal trouble of its own. Afzal Guruís hanging would, of course, deeply hurt the cause of the democratic forces in Pakistan who had been campaigning hard to normalize relations with India and, to that extent, delight the military establishment as well as pro-Taliban elements. But such long views are of the birds.