Survival as politics

UPA manages numbers and sheds excess weight to remain in power. But lack of legitimacy turns small issues into major crises

Elections are in the air. The strenuous denials of Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari while launching the UPA's propaganda blitz, and the studiously low-key filing of nomination papers to Rajya Sabha by Manmohan Singh from Assam, make the point. We are now into the last days of the current regime. The best, and possibly fairest, image one can have of this government is the one used by Charles Napier (1782-1853) to describe the Indian peasant: "He stands in neck-deep water with his feet firmly shackled to the ground; the tiniest ripple can drown him". The daily struggle for survival has made UPA 2 resilient. The litany of crises — the Anna Hazare movement, the cascade of corruption scandals, the Delhi gangrape and its hysteric aftermath, and the spat with the Supreme Court regarding documents submitted by the CBI — bear this out. Not to be outdone by the domestic tormentors of the UPA, India's neighbours have seen their chance and joined in, China with yet another stab at a land grab and Pakistan showing its bureaucratic face to the ordeals of Sarabjit Singh, indifferent to the tribulations of the UPA. In each of these crises, like the peasant, the government has been a survivor, ducking and holding its breath for the immediate crises to blow over. Clearly, this government will serve its term to the end. Two questions that immediately spring to mind are: how does the government do it, and what is the price to pay for survival as the paramount goal of politics?

Regarding the first question, the government manages the numbers through an adroit canniness in drafting support to balance the new "aaya rams and gaya rams" of Indian politics, trading off a Mamata for a Mulayam, or a Jayalalithaa for either of the two. And those crying out loud against the unprincipled politics of the UPA are the first ones to put the logic of survival over principle, and are loath to let the advantage of bailing out a beleaguered government pass to their adversaries in other regions. In this merry-go-round of political promiscuity, everyone keeps a straight face, taking comfort from avoiding the fall of the government, which could usher in the instability of the mid-1960s or mid-1990s. The subtext to all this, of course, is to keep the BJP from gaining any electoral advantage, whose chosen strategy of retaliation has been to disrupt Parliament, drowning out any scope for serious exploration of alternatives in a din of opportunity theatricals and seriously undermining the most important institution for public debate and accountability. If survival is the art of politics, then UPA 2 will be remembered as the leader of the pack, for India's regional satraps have replicated precisely the same strategies. All of this has been accepted in the name of TINA — that quintessential, all-conquering logic of Indian politics — there is no alternative!

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