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Commentary/Saisuresh Sivaswamy

The importance of being Murli Deora

No Congress politician of recent vintage has shown as much gumption in the face of adversity as, perhaps, Murli Deora, who recently managed to get himself elected unanimously to the presidentship of the Bombay Regional Congress Committee, a post which he had resigned from following the Shiv Sena's resounding victory in the civic level elections four months ago. Makes one wonder, if the Congressmen would not show the same amount of gumption in reviving the career of their political party as they show for reviving their own careers, Deora being a case in point of this peculiar malady affecting Congressmen.

That Deora cannot be long separated from power is well known in Bombay, a city that has unhesitatingly and unabashedly embraced saffron, giving the rebuff to the Marwari politico who has outlasted more chief ministers than the number of fingers he has on his hands. Perhaps it is aberration -- a Marwari political leader in a city that is yearning for a return to its roots even as it is the first to tumble before the alien winds blowing in from the West in the name of liberalisation.

A paradox in terms? Not really, for Bombay is a city that functions on two planes. Thus, even when you have the high society living out scenes from Dynasty and The Bold and the Beautiful on another level is the growing trend towards cultural homogeneity, represented by the phenomenal growth of the Shiv Sena. Murli Deora's leadership is one that appeals to the first mentioned level of the urbanscape; unfortunately for him, this is also a section that hugs the green card to its chest and does not come out to vote, leaving such menial tasks to the plebes. And since the second plane is that of the plebes, no wonder the Sena has been able to rake in the ballot.

But Deora has his uses, especially in a cash-rich city like Bombay. His well-cultivated closeness to industrial houses and top businessmen must endear him to the party bosses, particularly during election time when all parties feel the need for loose purse strings, the Election Commission's stringency on the score notwithstanding.

Getting and returning favours is perhaps what the art of politics is all about, and none can illuminate this contention better than the fact that not a single newspaper in his city -- at least not one of those who matter -- have a wrong thing to say either about him or his leadership. The truth may involve the publications, but obviously Deora is beyond the pale of this dictum.

That must be more like a quinquennial bargain. For five long years, Deora is perhaps defending the barons's interests in the capital, and the fifth year the interest on this deal is calculated in terms of media silence. Winning friends and influencing people is the name of the game, then, especially if the friends that are won over happen to be influential people.

The extent of his hold over his own party, and the media if need be, can be seen from the fact that his recent re-election to the post was carried out with an element of mystery that would have made Hitchcock proud. Not a word was breathed about his decision to throw his hat into the ring, and the news was sprung on unsuspecting newsmen one fine day. But those who were taken in by greater surprise were his political rivals, who were totally laid low by the suddenness of his thrust.

The man who had replaced him earlier this year and who was only too happy to relinquish the post in his favour, Sharad Dighe, summed it all up beautifully: All along Deora was the de facto president, now he is the de jure chief as well.

That should leave no one in doubt that even in defeat, there is no one to rival Deora's knack for converting it into a victory.

Anticipating the clamour that would go up for his scalp once it became evident that the Shiv Sena had worsted his party in the metropolis, Deora announced his resignation from the post. If he expected the new All-India Congress Committee chief Sitaram Kesri to reject it like P V Narasimha Rao did, Deora did not show his disappointment when it was accepted. But he has managed to come back in a way only he can.

But will his return strengthen the party in an important state capital, especially considering that it was under his leadership that its slide towards extinction started. Deora may shrug off responsibility by pointing a finger at New Delhi, but that would be like blaming Beijing for the Communist debacle in the Punjab elections.

The important that the city enjoys in the party's greater scheme of things can be gauged from the fact that this is the only autonomous city-centric entity, with the president having powers independent of the state Congress committee. And the man who has led this unit and, in fact, presided over its electoral liquidation has just been returned to the same office which he laid down barely four months ago.

So is Murli the Bombay Congress? Unfortunately for Deora, there is no one like Dev Kanta Barooah to etch his name into history when he claimed 'Indira is India, India is Indira', but all the same there is no dearth of those willing to attempt it.

But Indira Gandhi led the party through its worst phase, and led from the front in its revival. So where is the justification for some people to compare her to Deora, whose entry into some wards in his own constituency was greeted with rotten eggs and tomatoes (of course, you could not have read about this in any newspaper, but who spoke of all the news that is fit to print?).

The fact, it would seem, is that the Congress party is so wrought with ennui in the face of continuing electoral debacles that it has lost its collective will to take some bold decisions. It knows that the present lot is bad, but rather than experiment by changing the leadership, it is content to maintain the status quo.

Often there is also a quid pro quo in such deals, but then who cares? Certainly not the leaders, and certainly not the led.

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Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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