Burden of survival

Unfortunately, in the business of selling reforms, it is the ‘aam aadmi’ slogan that has become a millstone round the neck of the UPA

Posterity tends to be excessively harsh on losers. In the coming months, after the present political storm has either subsided or transformed itself into a fierce cyclone, the Congress will no doubt reflect on the course of events that led to Mamata Banerjee withdrawing her Trinamul Congress from the UPA-2.

Will the chief minister of West Bengal continue to be described as a maverick, unsuitable for the serious business of running the Government of India? Alternatively, will she be regarded as a canny politician who, despite her mercurial ways, had her finger firmly on the pulse of the popular mood?
Amid the clutter of the hour-by-hour developments in a Delhi that is salivating over the excitement provided by politics, it is difficult to predict the judgment of history. However, certain things are clear.
First, Mamata’s withdrawal from the UPA-2 last Tuesday after a three-hour-long meeting with her senior colleagues in Kolkata was not an impulsive decision.
For the past six months or so, the whisper from knowledgeable political circles in Kolkata strongly suggested that Mamata was convinced that the UPA-2 had run out of steam and that the Congress was heading for a massive election defeat in the general election, regardless of its timing. For Mamata, good politics dictated that she detach herself from the burden of the Centre’s rising anti-incumbency and move to grab both the regional party space and the terrain the Left threatened to occupy.
It wasn’t merely the opprobrium attached to being part of a regime that was burdened by both economic mismanagement and corruption that moved Mamata. What may have clinched her final decision was the unease in the state’s large Muslim population over the belief that the Congress government in Assam shared the blame for the attacks on Muslim “immigrants” in Kokrajhar.
The extent to which the events in Assam and coloured reports of an ethnic cleansing in Burma have contributed to Muslim anger all over India has been insufficiently noticed. It is still too early to be sure what political form these stirrings will take but Mamata has moved with great speed to ensure that the Muslim sullenness against the Congress does not rub off on her. By using both a regional and populist plank to justify her revolt against the Congress, she may have ensured that the 27 per cent minority votebank remains attached to her, but without any corresponding risk of playing the “Muslim card” overtly. Observers of Bihar politics may find strong traces of Mamata’s approach in some of the recent moves of Nitish Kumar.
Many commentators mistook the 60 hours gap between the announcement of her withdrawal and the formal resignation of her ministers at the Centre as evidence that she was amenable to some last minute persuasion. The symbolic significance of using the day of Friday prayers to mark her go-it-alone strategy was not adequately understood.
Secondly, unlike the Left which chose the ideological issue of anti-Americanism to walk out of the UPA-1 arrangement in 2008, Mamata was careful to choreograph her grandstanding around livelihood issues. This has put the Congress in a serious quandary. Regardless of how much the Prime Minister, the finance minister, the court economists and Corporate India see the fuel and cooking gas price hikes and the qualified opening up of the retail sector to foreign players as indicative of a fierce desire to usher in a new wave of reforms, the political class isn’t convinced that market economics is electorally saleable. A section of the Congress may have taken heart that at least Coalgate has been relegated to the inside pages, but this is a small consolation prize. At the end of the day, the party knows that there are ominous implications behind the grand show of political unity for the largely successful Bharat Bandh.
In 2004, a copywriter in an advertising agency borrowed the term “aam aadmi” for the political use of the Congress. It worked, beyond the party’s wildest expectations. Unfortunately, in the business of selling reforms which involve pain, austerity and dislocation, it is the “aam aadmi” slogan that has become a millstone round the neck of the ruling party. It is now being unceasingly taunted by what was once its most effective brand positioning exercise.
Finally, even if Mamata’s exit fails to dislodge a minority government from power, the Trinamul Congress has more or less ensured that Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram will no longer be able to muster the political strength to push through another wave of reforms. Those who enthusiastically cheered the diesel and cooking price hikes as being bold steps in the daunting battle against a soaring fiscal deficit and a possible ratings downgrade by international agencies, may find that the big bang has culminated in the equally big whimper.
The full-page advertisements issued by the beleaguered Ashok Gehlot government of Rajasthan promising generous state subsidies to mitigate the hardship caused by reforms tells the story of growing panic. The Congress can’t disown its own Prime Minister and finance minister but it can’t embrace their reformist zeal either. Therefore, since the political costs of the “reforms” became apparent, the Congress endeavour has been to shift the burden of subsidies from the Centre to the states.
By the time the survival game gets over for the Congress, the R-word may be sharing a berth with the FDI retail proposal in the political deep freeze.

The writer is a senior journalist

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