Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, June 14, 2010

THERE is a raging existential crisis in the Congress that threatens to cripple the government and the party. UPA ministers feuding openly at cabinet meetings are now passé; now the government and the party that’s leading it are at war and it’s an ideological war. One thinks global, talks about FDI, wants greater economic interaction with the West, is grateful for Barack Obama’s occasional kind words and gloats over strategic initiatives with the United States. The other thinks local, its leaders talk of aam aadmi , routinely visit jhuggi jhopris and never take their eyes off the next elections. Digvijay Singh is among the seniormost Congress leaders.
Far from being a loose cannon, he is among the most responsible Congressmen. Yet, he has said and done enough in the last two months to show up the glaring differences in the ruling establishment.

Two months ago, he embarrassed the government by publicly slamming P. Chidambaram for the home ministry’s policy on handling Maoist extremism. Now, Diggyraja has gone and done it again, this time over the Bhopal gas leak tragedy. His statement that Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson was allowed to go scot free under pressure from the US has once again embarrassed the government and underscores the depth of the divide. The frequent salvos from Digvijay — never mind if once in a while he retracts his statements — are signs of two wings of an establishment pulling in opposite directions. One that wants development at any cost and the other that believes in the Congress of old times — left of centre.

After the massacre of CRPF jawans in Dantewada, Chidambaram talked tough but was met with scathing criticism from large sections of the party. Surface transport minister Kamal Nath is in a hurry to acquire land for roads but environment minister Jairam Ramesh wants the impact on local habitats to be assessed before clearance is given.

The same Jairam had embarrassed the government by attacking the home ministry while on an official visit to China. He was duly censured by the Prime Minister and there was even speculation over his continuation in the ministry as rumours did the rounds that he would be denied a renomination to the Rajya Sabha. His re- entry into the Upper House last week, which could not have come about without clearance from the highest party levels is, if anything, proof that for all the admonitions, he continues to have the full backing of the few who matter in the party.

Last week, the newly reconstituted National Advisory Council with Sonia Gandhi as chairperson held its first meeting. Readers will recall that the NAC was set up weeks after the UPAI took office and, before it became defunct in 2006, had played a key role in the enactment of two of the government’s showpiece achievements — the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Right to Information Act.

In its first avatar, there were charges that the NAC was being some sort of a “ Super Cabinet” but the government was quick to deny these. The charges are likely to resurface now after the NAC, at its meeting last Thursday, made known its displeasure over the implementation of flagship schemes.

The members are said to have insisted on scrutinising the progress of the programmes. One even pointed to the incongruity of the government pushing the Nuclear Liability Bill at a time when the nation is reeling in horror at the Bhopal gas tragedy verdict.

Everyone seems to have taken positions, but the two who must are holding their cards close to their chest. So far, neither Sonia Gandhi nor her son has said anything of significance on the Naxalite menace, terrorism, the economy or foreign relations. Their motto seems to be: talk less, work more. So Rahul spends nights in the interiors, sharing dal- roti with impoverished villagers in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Sonia’s helicopter makes day trips to similar locales in other parts of the country. Both mother and son ignore the bitter recriminations in the UPA cabinet and carry on with their work, knowing that issues such as the Nuclear Liability Bill or increased FDI have nothing to do with getting votes.

The first test of this strategy will be the elections next year in states such as West Bengal and Kerala, where the Left has already ceded space. If they succeed, by the time Rahul’s coronation comes up in 2014, it will be a different Congress that marches to the polls. And many of the ministers now strutting around will have no place in Rahul’s team.