Calamities do come in battalions. For a country with an economist Prime Minister, it is no small matter to be downgraded to the “negative” category by the rating agency, Standard & Poor. It has diminished India in the eyes of the world. So has the rebirth of the Bofors scandal. For a party leader to please whom the entire machinery of the party and the government is geared, it is no small matter to be reminded that Rajiv Gandhi protected Italians who took the Bofors bribe money. To crown it all, presidential election manoeuvres have brought up the name of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the one man Sonia Gandhi would like to keep out.
Coming after the UP and Delhi election disasters, these developments signal a crisis of unusual gravity for the Congress. Party strategists are unable to respond effectively because they cannot think beyond turning Sachin Tendulkar into a vote in Parliament. They go into twists and turns – now spreading the word about cabinet ministers quitting to work for the party, now making secret moves to enlist the support of a rival party or two. All moves are made from a position of weakness.
Speculation about ministers quitting was denied by the ministers, but the speculation did not stop. Obviously the strategists were floating a trial balloon. The media, with its addiction to short-hand cliches, dubbed it a Kamaraj Plan. But Kamaraj Plan was in fact a Nehru Plan to get rid of a millstone round his neck, Morarji Desai. Why would a Sonia Plan try to get rid of harmless flatterers like Gulam Nabi Azad? One thing politicians have taught us is not to believe what they tell us. So, what are they not telling us?
Is it a move to create vacancies in the cabinet so that they can be filled with nominees of Mulayam Singh Yadav and of Mamata Banerjee who, then, will support the Congress on crucial issues? Not that the ministers-turned-apparatchiks will be wasted in the process. Gulam Nabi can strike a deal with the Telangana leaders, Vayalar Ravi with his friend Jagan Mohan Reddy. That could possibly net a couple of dozen Lok Sabha seats. Precious in 2014.
A central element in these manoeuvres will be the presidential election. It is complicated this time because the veteran intriguer of our times, Sharad Pawar, is taking a direct interest, something we should all be worried about. Mulayam Singh, no less a veteran, is also involved. Most disturbing is the possibility that Sonia Gandhi might allow any deal with anyone as long as she can influence the choice.
Why is this disturbing? Because she has proved that she is guided by her private interests and not by considerations of the country's prestige. This was clear when she handpicked the unknown Pratibha Patil last time. True, Pratibha Patil was not the worst of our Presidents; it will take more talent than she has to be worse than Fakhruddin Ali and Zail Singh. But she was, simply, unfit to be President of this country. Having contributed nothing to anything, she manoeuvred, till protests forced her to retreat, for a retirement mansion. That is her calibre. Her record as a Sonia hanger-on was her sole qualification. If this is the yardstick the Congress President uses, what good can she do this time? The country loves Kalam, but she hates him because his sense of non-partisanship blocked some of her plans. Should that be the deciding factor?
Deals have a counterproductive effect, too. Where did the deal with the DMK take the Congress? Or the deal with Trinamool? Or with the Kerala Muslim League? Where will new deals with the wild horses of Andhra take it? Only one deal will actually benefit the Congress – a deal of honesty with the people of India, a deal that will put people's interests above dynastic interests. That, unfortunately, is one deal the Congress will not make.