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November 25, 1997


Pritish Nandy

Yet another Slugfest

It is an amazing dichotomy. On one hand, we complain about unstable governments. On the other, we are the ones ready to throw the first stone. For no reason other than the sheer delight of watching things go bust. We actually enjoy the amphitheatre of uncertainty. The battles. The quick thrusts and jabs. The sudden spurting of blood. The anxious moments. The excitement of seeing a new ministry sworn in. The fun of watching it fall. Like nine pins.

Politics, movies, cricket. These are our three great passions. We enjoy them all in a strange, surreal fashion. Where heroes and villains, both grab our mindshare. Where every battle throws up its thrills, its own magic. Irrespective of who wins, who loses. Irrespective of what happens to India.

That is why the slugfest last week did not exactly surprise me.

Wherever I went, I faced the same gleeful questions. When will the Gujral government fall? Who will replace it? Will the BJP come to power? Will the Congress crack up? Will fresh elections be held? And, finally, the ultimate question. Will Sonia Gandhi take charge of the party her husband once led?

It seems as if almost everyone is waiting for poor Gujral to go.

Why? Does everyone hate the Gujral government so much that they want it to fall? No, I don't think so. Gujral may or may not have done much good. But he has tried his best and done no harm to India. At worst, you can accuse him -- as his critics do -- of being effete. But you cannot accuse him or his government of nurturing corruption and crime. As virtually every Congress government did. As even the last UF government did. So why is there so much excitement over what is seen as his imminent downfall?

Next question. Does everyone agree with the Jain Commission that the DMK was responsible for Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, that V P Singh and Chandra Shekhar deliberately and wickedly ignored threats to Rajiv's life and security and, in a sense, conspired to get him killed? Rubbish. If anyone was really responsible for Rajiv's assassination, it is the Congress itself. This is clearly documented. The whole world knows it as well.

The whole world also knows how Rajiv bungled the LTTE issue, how he promoted Prabhakaran (like his brother Sanjay promoted, with an identical mix of chicanery and sheer daredevilry, the Sikh militant leader Bhindranwale to checkmate the Akalis) and ultimately -- in the process -- became a victim of his own stupidity. What is the poor DMK's crime? As a Tamilian party, it was only trying to make the most of a political opportunity. Can you blame them?

The third question. Is everyone anxious to see the BJP come to power in Delhi? Not really. No one wants another election. No one wants a change in political equations at this stage. While, yes, a lot of people do feel that the BJP deserves a chance to rule in Delhi (and some actually feel that they may not do a bad job of it either) the fear still remains that the BJP is a communal party and could well exacerbate tensions with minority groups. Ayodhya is too traumatic an experience for a nation to forget.

In reality, this fear may not be well founded and my own impression is that Muslims feel far less insecure under BJP rule than they do under double-faced, wheeling and dealing Congress regimes. But the BJP has a terrible imaging problem and unless they can solve that, it is unlikely that minorities, lower castes and the middle class will vote for them in enough numbers.

The fact that prominent business leaders are forever prognosticating that the BJP will soon come to power further alienates the party from the masses. It is seen as a bania party, funded by the rich and the corrupt. The ugly horse trading in UP has not exactly helped to dispel this image.

The last two questions. Will the Congress crack up under the strain of staying out of power? And, finally, do people actually believe that Sonia can lead the party back from the edge? My answer to the first one is simple: I don't know. Anything is possible in the Congress, where the obsessive greed and ambition of individual leaders always outstrip the party's political compulsions. No one is actually concerned about the Congress. Everyone is worried about how to checkmate his rivals, come out on top.

That is why everyone is using Sonia. To intimidate others. To confuse the rest. Her sphinx-like silence further adds to this confusion as, indeed, does her own inexplicable moves. Everyone knows in their heart of hearts that she is not in the least interested in politics. At the same time, everyone wants to fool everyone else to believe that she is. This is the way every Congress leader wants to make a monkey of the rest.

No, Sonia cannot lead the Congress out of its despicable maze of corruption and crime. What the party needs is a real leader. Someone who believes in India, not in his own Swiss bank account. In a political scenario where every carpetbagger is desperate to grab his place in history, Sonia is just another dud weapon to train on your adversary. And that is exactly what everyone is doing. What Sonia actually wants, I imagine, is to keep her name clean on Bofors (at least, for as long as possible) and that is why she is there, as part of this silly game. What she does not realise is that it is this very fact that makes her (and the Congress) so extremely vulnerable. Vulnerable to every form of political blackmail.

But that still does not answer the real question. Why are we so gleefully waiting for the Gujral government to trip over itself and fall? Since we do not dislike Gujral, since we are not exactly anxious to see either the BJP or the Congress come back in power, why are we so excitedly waiting for something dramatic to happen.

The answer is simple. Fun. We, in India, see politics as fun and games. The theatre of the absurd. The worse things get, the more excitement we want. Remember how, during the worst days of the Great Depression, the American movie industry boomed? Exactly that is happening here. Television viewership is growing at a phenomenal pace. After a long time, newspapers are picking up more readers. More and more people are watching movies, cricket, politics. Any slugfest is good enough.

No one cares what happens. In fact, no one believes any more that our politicians can either improve or deteriorate the quality of our lives. They are here as clowns. Performers. With dunce caps on their heads, masquerading as topis. Redeeming the boredom of our lives, the misery of making our ends meet in an economy that is becoming more and more cruel and selfish, where the weak and the destitute have no one to help them out. Where hope is dying, only excitement keeps us alive.

Pritish Nandy

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