Even so deplorable and uncalled-for a crisis has yielded some good. 1. At long last, the real Sonia Gandhi has stepped forth: and shown that she is just another politician, that the image which had been so assiduously projected -- the shy, reticent lady, concerned only with the security of her children, a lady who hates politics, who shuns power -- was just nail-polish. Her ambition, her readiness to use all means for acquiring office, her willingness to twist and turn -- "A minority government of the Congress, take it or leave it" one day, the magnanimous openness to a coalition the next, and the Papal, "No, we are not ready to pardon," the third -- were all put on display. As have the limits of the astuteness with which she was getting to be credited: thus far she had been dealing with the doormen and doormats of the Congress; as they would bend and genuflect each time she looked their way, it was easy to seem astute; what happened when she had to handle Mulayam, Laloo, Jayalalitha, Mayawati...?
Even more graphically we had a chance to glimpse her disposition to untruth. "We have the support of 272 MPs," she declared one day. She had nothing of the sort, it is clear. The President gave her 48 hours to furnish the letters affirming this claim. When she came out of Rashtrapati Bhavan after her second meeting with the President, she and her minions -- Arjun Singh leading the rest -- led everyone to believe that the President had advised her to "complete her efforts for forming an alternative Government as early as possible." I was quite astonished, I confess. For if this were true, it would mean that the President was straining to see one combination out and a particular one in. I requested a friend to send me the text of what had been put out by Rashtrapati Bhawan officially. Just read what the President's office stated in writing. The relevant para ran as follows: "Smt Sonia Gandhi gave to the President a list of 233 MPs who would extend support for the formation of a Congress Government. When it was put to her that the numbers did not add up to the requisite strength, she conveyed to the President that she would continue her discussions with parties and individuals who voted against the Motion of Confidence on April 17, 1999 and advise the President on her efforts, as early as possible." She, Sonia Gandhi, told the President that she would "advise" him of the results of her efforts. And that was twisted to read that the President had advised her to do whatever she had to in this regard as early as possible! That reversal is more than an Italian's English: it is the exact replay of what used to be done during Rajiv Gandhi's tenure. Moreover, it is evident that, for advancing her own chances, she -- and of course her factotums -- have no compunction in putting the President's office and credibility in jeopardy.
No blackmailer could have blackballed himself as effectively as Jayalalitha isolated and marginalised herself. Even had the Government she had banked on come into being, her power to bully it had been substantially diminished.
People got to see how spurious were "issues" these politicians had been shouting about these last few months: did anyone mention a word about Bhagwat or Guruswamy at any turn during the week?
The perennials of every conspiracy -- Harkishen Singh Surjeet, Arjun Singh, Subramaniam Swamy -- out-conspired themselves. Prudence kept everyone from saying anything against Swamy. In Papaji's case, on the other hand, the long-suppressed resentment against him of his own partymen was expressed in the strongest language even to a person like me. And Arjun Singh was being blamed for what is in the sycophantic Congress the cardinal sin: he is the one who has caused embarrassment to Madam, went the charge.
That these parties and leaders care nothing for the country's condition and interest was brought home to all: "In one minute, we will put the alternative in place," they claimed; in fact, as events showed, they had pulled down the Government, and plunged the country into such uncertainty, with nothing in hand -- except their private calculations: each had convinced himself -- and herself, let us not forget -- that, once the existing Government was out, and he or she out-played the others in obstinacy, the others would have no alternative but to hand the crown to her or him.
The Third Front was blown to pieces for the nth time -- its obituary pronounced by the very one who had used it the most for indulging his habit: Surjeet.
The image which leftists have created for themselves -- larger-than-life monoliths -- was cracked. First the Left Front couldn't agree. Then the sharp divisions within the CPI (M) -- between the Kerala and Bengal units of the party, then the emotion they share -- intense hostility towards their General Secretary, Surjeet -- were on display.
The incessant claim of these parties -- that they have been fighting for "secularism" -- was blown. Trust between "secular forces" always in short supply, was erased altogether: Sonia isn't the only one who is saying, "No, we are not ready to pardon." The public also got another chance to see through their pretensions: to the cliche, "We will do everything necessary to consolidate secular forces," was added another, "Jo bhi Bahujan Samaj ke hit mein hoga hum voh hi karenge"!
Even as they persisted in painting the "communalists" as untouchables in public, politicians of all hues were in touch with the BJP leaders: typical was an incident to my knowledge -- having made a crucial move, leaders of a secularist combine phoned a BJP bigwig and told him, "We are going to abuse you fellows a lot today, don't black it out from Doordarshan, it is important that our supporters hear the message in full"!
As every vote counted, and as no one knew who he might have to ally with tomorrow, politicians became ever so polite to one another.
The Budget, which till the day before the opposition had dubbed a "communal budget", an "Ashok Singhal budget," was passed unanimously, without so much as a proforma discussion.
Parliament was adjourned, sine die, and the country was so much more at peace.
At the height of the crisis, newspapers too decided to go on strike, peace became tranquility.
Enthusiastic newspapers made Jayalalithas of themselves: few have lent themselves so shamelessly as megaphones for broadcasting rumours as them: like Jayalalitha, they overdid their part, and thereby readers see what they have been doing -- The Indian Express took the prize by concocting minatory remarks, and attributing them to the President: so much so that the President's office had to put out an official contradiction. As an exercise, go back to the paper and compare the display of the concoctions and of the official contradiction.
Even politicians saw that goodness pays: that it was Atal Behari Vajpayee who had been done in by the conspiracy is what hurt conspirators the most -- "People think it to be gau-hatya," my friend Surya Prakash said.
Means still seemed to matter. The President's decision of asking Vajpayee to seek a vote of confidence instead of letting the opposition parties settle their differences and move a motion of no-confidence; and the decision which was pasted on him by Sonia Gandhi -- to give her an indefinite length of further time -- were widely perceived as efforts to help one side. And thereby the norm that persons occupying high office must be non-partisan was reaffirmed. Wicked devices still seemed to boomerang: by seducing one TDP MP, the Congress got headlines for a day; but it simultaneously confirmed allegations of the means it was using; more consequential, it clarified Chandrababu Naidu's mind: for all their protestations and the soothing suggestions of their brokers, Chandrababu was reminded that Congress leaders will not hesitate one second to prise his flock from him.
Among the means the Congress and the Communists deployed the most was rumour-mongering: Mulayam has given his letter, one minute, Dilip Rai has met Sonia and the Biju Janata Dal is as good as broken the next, Ambani has sent 75 crores, the exodus has begun, Chandrashekhar has met Sonia, Farooq Abdullah has just talked to her and pledged his support, the Samata MPs have agreed on the promise that they will be given ministerships after a month, the President has made it clear to the BJP and alliance leaders that under no circumstances will he ..... Every other hour some such rumour would sweep the capital. But each rumour buried the preceding, one, together they discredited that whole lot -- the mongers of rumours.
The people didn't just -- once again --- see politicians for that they are. They saw that in the current system only such politicians will float to the top, that in each round the current arrangement is yielding a worse and worse lot. The lesson that it is the system that needs to be refashioned was thus reinforced.
The nemesis of "progressive politics" was brought home just as effectively: the electorate have been fractured in the name of "social engineering" -- casteism, in plain language -- the Government, and therefore the country has been placed at the mercy of every blackmailer with a vote in Parliament. Surely, people will remember this when they go to the polls next time.
The BJP and its allies lost a Government, but benefited a great deal. Everything had been pulling them apart till this blow. The way Karunanidhi, Badal, Murosoli Maran, Vaiko, Mamta Banerjee, George Fernandes worked to stage off the challenge brought the allies much closer. It isn't just that they worked harder, their contribution was greater than their effort -- for they had far better contacts in, a far deeper reach into the Congress and other opposition parties.
The BJP was suddenly a different party than it had been for months. Ever so often we see the phenomenon in day-to-day life. Some trifling thing happens, we take it to heart and stop meeting a friend. He is suddenly killed in an accident. How much we regret that quarrel! We see in a flash how trivial was the issue which we had taken to heart. This is what this near-death experience did to the BJP. Suddenly, everyone was working as one.
And in the end, the best possible solution remained the only one: elections. Had either side got to form a Government with a majority of twos and threes, it would have been, and hence the country would have been at the mercy of twos and threes. It is far better that the country spend a thousand crores as many times as it takes to get Governments with clear majorities than that the Government of India be so vulnerable that some Jayalalitha can in a week inflict a loss of 50,000 crores on the assets of small investors.
May be all this is not just a sequence but an omen, I tell myself hopefully, may be the good will hold. The day before Mulayam Singh was to Syed Naqvi. "Aao, main tumhe apne gaon ki baat batlaata hoon," he said, "Come, I will teach you something of our village." If a girl comes of age, if her nose is pierced and the nose-ring threaded, if her ears are pierced and she is adorned with ear-rings, if new clothes are stitched, ornaments are brought, if the engagement is done, if gifts are exchanged, if mehndi is put, if the shehnai commences, if the guests arrive, and after all this there are no pheras, if after all this the wedding doesn't go through, in the village that girl doesn't get married ever, he exclaimed. So, if Sonia does not become Prime Minister tomorrow.... At least this time she didn't. As for the future, Long live Village India!
April 30, 1999