Monday, May 31, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, May 31, 2010

MANMOHAN Singh must have known it was coming and it has come earlier than he expected.
There have been deep divisions within the union cabinet before, but now for the first time, these are on public display.

Ministers of the pro and anti caste census lobbies appear at each other’s throat and neither wants to be the first to ease off. Three weeks ago, in its hurry to have the cut motions on the finance bills defeated in Parliament, the government struck private deals with some of the regressive opposition parties. I had in these columns said that the finance bill victory was likely to come with a heavy price tag.

That has happened much earlier than expected.

The divide in the party was evident early this month when barely hours after the Home Minister P Chidambaram told the Lok Sabha that he was against caste based enumeration as “ many members felt caste is a divisive factor”, the prime minister said his government would give it “ serious thought and take a decision shortly”. They were again in the open at last week’s Cabinet meeting where senior ministers like Chidambaram, Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal and others clashed with those like Veerappa Moily who took up the cause. And now we have Ajay Maken writing an open letter to young MPs terming the caste census as a “ regressive measure”. Maken is not known for his flamboyance or is the kind to talk out of turn. As a junior minister, he has never joined debate on any political issue. That’s why his letter last week to young and like- minded members of the Lok Sabha belonging to different political parties came as a surprise.

His letter was sent out to 67 MPs aged between 25 and 45 years. They aren't ordinary MPs either. The recipients include Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav, son of Mulayam Singh, BJP MP Dushyant Singh, Ajit Singh's son Jayant Chowdhury, Union minister Dayanidhi Maran, Supriya Sule, Milind Deora and all young ministers in the government.
Being a very unlikely source for controversy, the question naturally arises: did Maken act on his own? Or was he speaking for the new Congress which has a stake in the future that its current leadership evidently doesn’t? I have known Ajay from the days he was a student leader at Delhi University and can say with a great degree of confidence that he is a stickler for rules. It was something of a sur- prise therefore to see him releasing his letter just a day after the prime minister warned the many warring members of his cabinet not to air their personal opinions in public and limit these to appropriate party forums. The issue must have been playing in mind for long, but the May 27 cabinet decision to appoint an Empowered Group of Ministers to decide about the timing and contours of the caste based census was the last straw. What now comes across loud and clear is that Maken was not speaking for himself alone. He represents the voice of GenNext who have been either kept away from the political decision making process or given such raw deals that they have chosen to stay away. It appears to me that they have decided to retaliate by working as a pressure group that will dictate political agenda from outside.

Arrayed against them is the entrenched Congress that continues to subscribe to the politics of convenience. Though the Congress party as a whole was opposed to the idea of caste based census, with their survival at stake, they unashamedly compromised with the Yadavs.

Now the liberal elements in the Congress have chosen to strike back. Historically, the Congress has always split into ideological factions every time a new emerging generation sought to assert itself. During the late 60s, it was the Syndicate vs Indicate represented by Indira Gandhi. In his short political career, Sanjay showed signs of raising an army to take on the old guard. Rajiv thundered about “ power brokers” and “ cabals” but fell victim to their machinations. The professorial Manmohan would be the last man you would expect to succumb to such low level politicking but even he chose the politics of convenience over conviction. Win is what counts, no matter what the cost of the trade- off is.

But the many young ones like Maken, who have a much longer political shelf life seem bent on setting the tone for future politics.

If Maken's voice is not muzzled by the Congress old guard, it will certainly signal the drawing of new battle lines. And Maken may have very powerful supporters within.