Having been at the receiving end of metropolitan derision for more than a year, the Congress has reason to believe the tide is finally turning. If its Christmas celebrations were not entirely joyous thanks to the “fleedom at midnight” saga in the Rajya Sabha over the Lokpal Bill, 2012 has begun on a happier note for three reasons.
First, the party’s bush telegraph has successfully disseminated the impression that it is on a spectacular comeback trail in Uttar Pradesh. Whereas it was earlier expected to come fourth in a four-cornered contest in India’s largest State, optimists now reckon it is in second place after Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and much ahead of both Mayawati and the BJP. To what extent this perception is real or simply based on irrational exuberance is something which will be known on March 4. But there is no doubt there is an extra bounce in the step of the average Congress activist.
Second, the tension between the Congress and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal hasn’t renewed speculation about an imminent collapse of the UPA Government at the Centre. Instead, it has been an occasion to demonstrate that India’s oldest political party remains wonderfully nimble-footed for its age. There is talk that there will be a swap in coalition partners, with the Samajwadi Party replacing the Trinamool Congress. If the grapevine is to be believed, it has already been decided that the next Railway Minister will be either Mulayam Singh Yadav or his son Akhilesh. The associated presumption is that there will be a SP Government in UP propped up by the Congress, either in coalition or through outside support.
Finally, Congress publicists, aided by an obliging media desperate to prove its even-handedness, have made much of the BJP’s hypocrisy in crusading against corruption and simultaneously embracing the tainted BSP discard Babu Singh Kushwaha in UP. Ideally the BJP should either have spurned Kushwaha or been brazen about his induction. Instead, it got the worst of both worlds by first welcoming Kushwaha and then allowing internal democracy to become public democracy. What was essentially a one-day headline has dominated the news space for three days because Kushwaha became the fig leaf for different factions of the party to play out their rivalries over the distribution of tickets. True, there were individuals who were guided by ethical imperatives. In the main, however, the respective positions on Kushwaha were guided by factional (and, by implication, caste) considerations. The sub-text of the turbulence was a tug-of-war between the upper caste and OBC lobbies of the party.
For the Congress, the Kushwaha affair has been a godsend. It has allowed it to establish the principle of moral equivalence. This is important for the Congress. As a practitioner of the most cynical form of statecraft, the Congress has tended to be expedient and flexible on the issue of corruption. The BJP, unfortunately for it, is a party whose ethos is governed by middle-class values. Thanks to its RSS pedigree, it has traditionally cherished uprightness more fanatically than the party which claims descent from Mahatma Gandhi. In electoral terms this implies that the Congress can live with a YS Rajasekhara Reddy more easily than the BJP can digest a BS Yeddyurappa. For the Congress, doling out patronage is a part of normal politics; for the BJP, innocence is still cherished. The Congress will play the caste game with vigour and yet pretend it is above casteism; the BJP will play the caste game surreptitiously because it always has one eye on a homogenised nationalism.
There is another big difference. Last month, the Congress effortlessly accommodated Ajit Singh and his Rashtriya Lok Dal in the UPA. This was despite the fact that the RLD contested the 2009 general election as an ally of the BJP. There were Congressmen who didn’t like the arrangement. But they kept quiet because the party operates on the principle that the High Command — a euphemism for the first family — has the last word. The BJP, on the other hand, is relatively more democratic. The alacrity with which Yogi Adityanath, Maneka Gandhi and others expressed their opposition to Kushwaha’s entry is in sharp contrast to the silence which greets controversial decisions by the Congress High Command.
The question is: Which of the two approaches is preferable? Middle-class opinion is remarkably schizoid on this point. On the one hand, the lack of internal democracy inside the Congress is lamented. Simultaneously, the middle-class (which is also reflected in the media) shows a great deal of impatience with inner-party strife which is equated with indiscipline. An argumentative democracy is celebrated with the same enthusiasm as regimented democracy.
It is quite apparent that this middle-class sentiment doesn’t always percolate down to the grassroots. Mayawati’s grand birthday celebrations and her majestic monuments to Kanshi Ram are mocked by the middle-classes. Yet, it is quite apparent that Mayawati’s ostentatious flamboyance carries a large measure of approval of ordinary, poor Dalits who view her wealth and success as symbols of community pride. Flashiness, in other words, isn’t universally loathed. Its perceptions are socially determined. This may explain why politicians tend to be far more accommodative towards cutting corners than do the supporters of Anna Hazare. This may also explain why the outburst of moral indignation against the BJP on Kushwaha may not be a determining factor in the UP election.