The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Sonia Gandhi is aware of the xenophobic power that the BJP can still tap

If today’s Rashtrapati Bhavan ceremony takes place as planned, it will not only be a triumph for the Indian ideal but also a resounding public rejection of the poison that has been injected into Indian life over the last five years. A Muslim president administering the oath of office to a Sikh prime minister in the presence of the most powerful woman in the country, born an Italian Roman Catholic, proclaims the unity in diversity that should be our pride.

But there is little room for complacency. If Sonia Gandhi’s sudden retreat was the finest act of her leadership, the tamasha surrounding it can only compound Manmohan Singh’s problems. He is by far the best prime minister India can hope for, but his party bristles with ambitious intriguers who would gladly stab him in the back any twilit evening. Moreover, in spite of the ringing phrases flying about since May 13, it is a simplification to imagine that the nation has rallied solidly behind a “pluralist, inclusive, secular” India.

The Bharatiya Janata Party is by no means a spent force. No wonder Manmohan Singh denounced the butchery of Sikhs and Muslims with such passion. The election results show that the two sides are still dangerously matched, though people are reluctant to face up to this truth. First, there is tremendous relief at the drubbing the BJP has received. Second, it seems little short of a miracle that Sonia Gandhi has been able to revitalize a party in utter disarray so that it is again the largest single group in the Lok Sabha, a distinction it has not known since 1996. One might add a third factor — superb crowd management by the agents and allies of 10 Janpath.

The hysteria is a reminder of the pressures to which P.V. Nara- simha Rao — the only Congress prime minister not from the Nehru-Gandhi family to finish his term — was subjected. It also provides a taste of what Manmohan Singh may have to put up with unless he submits meekly to the new extra-constitutional centre of power. Congress politicians who do obeisance at 10 Janpath and pay court to the family’s rising parliamentary star and his sister will not be repulsed. India’s culture being sycophantic, more and more will seek, like Arjun Singh, to draw connections between “Rahulji” and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Perhaps Sonia Gandhi alone is not to be blamed for a frenzy that demonstrates that a hi-tech election alone cannot create a modern mature society. The dehati psychology of our political elite also produced an explosive mass orgasm when MPs found themselves within hailing — even touching — distance of the great white chief, Bill Clinton.

Knowing the primitive clay she was dealing with, the Congress president could have tried to minimize the fall-out. Instead, she seems to have taken every possible step to extract the maximum drama from the situation. It has certainly exalted, even deified, her image in the party and country, the transforma- tion into Sita, Draupadi, Deoki and Mahatma Gandhi coinciding with the equally miraculous metamorphosis of media critics into worshippers of her martyrdom.

No one would begrudge her this glory if it did not threaten national stability and the next government’s capacity to push through sound economic programmes and measures to contain communalism. Government is always the management of contradictions: it is just that they are more sharply highlighted now with the debate involving pragmatism and populism, secularism and communalism, party and family. Outside the Congress, Manmohan Singh will have to beware as much of grasping United Progressive Alliance partners as of the two communist groups. Sonia Gandhi might have become a popular idol, but Sitaram Yechury, A.B. Bardhan and the rest know that like her mother-in-law, she has no ideological anchorage. Indeed, seeing her trying for tactical reasons to take the party back to the socialist roots exemplified in slogans like Congress ke haath, garib ke saath, recalled the comment of a British journalist, Peter Hazlehurst of The Times (London), during the Congress split that Indira Gandhi was slightly left of self-interest. Communist politicians may also have hoped to take advantage of Sonia Gandhi’s total lack of experience in governance.

Her successor’s daunting domestic and international reputation makes him a different kettle of fish. Diplomats and dignitaries packed his 90-minute budget speech in 1994 while financial experts in New York, London and Hongkong listened to every word and provided instant analyses by satellite television. But his stature cannot wish away the Congress party’s vulnerable position, and a communist spokesman has already warned against “the old Manmohan” who fathered liberalization.

Not that the prime minister designate is unversed in survival skills. He displayed considerable dexterity in 1991 in obtaining guarantees of a free hand from Narasimha Rao (whose Independence Day promise of subsidies confirmed that he always had an eye cocked at the voter) before accepting the job. He legitimized reforms with nuggets dug up from Rajiv Gandhi’s election manifesto promising to replace a “lethargic, inefficient and expensive” public sector with one that was “leaner, more dynamic and profit oriented” and more in that vein. Many of his proposals were not even mentioned at cabinet meetings for the inevitable leaks would have led to an uproar in press, party and parliament. Instead, there were quiet discussions with Lal Krishna Advani and the BJP’s prior endorsement. Even the BJP’s K. Govindacharya praised him for taking “more radical steps in one month than past governments in 43 years”.

But while Manmohan Singh has no personal mandate, as he was quick to point out, that of his leader is by no means as absolute as made out by those who gush about “people power” and “the revenge of the multitude”. As it happens, today’s Congress strength of 145 MPs falls short even of the 152 that forced Indira Gandhi to acknowledge defeat in 1977.

Far from storming the citadel, to repeat another current cliché, the Congress has actually lost its share of the vote by 1.48 per cent — from 28.3 per cent in 1999 to 26.82 per cent. By that token, fewer Indians than in any election between 1952 and 1998 are committed to the “idea of India” that Sonia Gandhi eulogized after her party’s Simla conclave last July.

Those who clutch at the hope that Hindutva’s divisive spectre has been vanquished once and for all should face up to the truth that the BJP vote has suffered only a 1.54 per cent decline, from 23.75 per cent last time to 22.21 per cent. How votes translate into seats is another matter. As the Congress committee set up to examine last year’s assembly election debacle noted, the BJP swept to power in Madhya Pradesh with only a 1.5 per cent increase in its share of the vote, from 30.26 per cent in 1998 to 40.64 per cent. In Himachal Pradesh, the Congress increased its tally of assembly seats from 31 to 40 despite a 3 per cent fall in votes. But a 3.5 per cent decline cost the BJP 13 seats in the same state.

Such anomalies are possible because of the way votes are spread out. A huge majority in a straight fight in one constituency is always less rewarding than small winning margins in triangular contests in a number of places. The point of stressing this factor is not to play down the Congress success but to argue that the distribution of parliamentary seats is not necessarily an accurate index of feeling in the country. Each state, perhaps each constituency, is a case by itself. Communal paranoia is the only common theme, apart, of course, from bread and butter issues that affect all Indians.

Sonia Gandhi’s decision indicates an awareness of the xenophobic power that the BJP and its minions can still tap. Communalism is alive and well, and lurking in dark corners, waiting to strike back. Manmohan Singh is right to sound concerned.

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