Shekhar Gupta: Clutching at a saffron straw

In politics, or war by any other means, the oldest principle is: The enemy’s enemy is your friend. And what do you do when you are so down in the dumps that you aren’t even in the fight? Then conventional rules no longer suffice. Once you get desperate enough you venture out to even reverse it: What if the enemy’s best friend then becomes your friend? If there is the minutest crack visible in their relationship, why not probe it with a finely sharpened hatchet?

That is exactly the game the Congress and its ally, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), are playing in Maharashtra. A deal isn’t sealed as this column is written, but the mere fact that they’ve announced willingness to share power with the Shiv Sena tells us what a change this is in Indian politics. The two, committed “secular” allies for decades are reaching out formally to a party they have condemned as a Right-wing Hindutva and communal party all this while. This is India’s premier secular combination crossing an ideological Lakshman Rekha.

It is even more striking for the Congress. Sharad Pawar’s NCP is still a party known for its deft political footwork now and then, back-room deal-cutting. As I have written earlier, Mr Pawar has been India’s best-networked politician for three decades now. And, in the true sense of old-fashioned Indian politics, he never treats anybody as an enemy.

He has always fought with the BJP and Shiv Sena, both have routinely called him a “crook”, and the Modi government’s Enforcement Directorate also named him in some scam on the eve of this state election.

Do also note that the same Modi government had honoured him with the Padma Vibhushan, an award next only to Bharat Ratna. Mr Pawar and the Thackerays too have had a business-like political relationship sometimes.

The Congress, on the other hand, has never gone anywhere in that direction. Committed critics of the Congress would contest this, mentioning the party’s deals with the Indian Union Muslim League and Kerala Congress (Christian), and sometimes with Asaduddin Owaisi’s MIM in Hyderabad. Those deals are still marginal, localised, and, more importantly, with small groups riding minority politics. This is the Congress’ first embrace of a genuine, fried-in-desi-ghee Hindutva party since Independence.

If you understand the essential politics of the Congress, especially under Sonia Gandhi over the past two decades, it has looked at the Hindutva parties as its prime ideological rivals and designed its entire politics in opposition to them. In an interview with me on NDTV’s Walk The Talk show in 2003, L K Advani had complained that Sonia treated his party not just as a rival but “enemy”. Once it defined its politics this way, the Congress was now willing to align with just about anyone to fight the BJP and its essential allies. We define two parties, Shiromani Akali Dal and Shiv Sena, as its essential allies.

illustration: Binay Sinha

The Congress has aligned with the Left multiple times, beginning with outside support to H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral’s United Front governments merely to keep the “communal forces” out, and to also place the party back in power at the head of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), after the unlikely general election result in 2004.

In the coalition era, it has, at some point or the other, made deals with those who’ve also aligned with the BJP. These include Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu, and Nitish Kumar, but never with a Hindutva ally, or the Akalis. There had to be a “progressive force” cover always. Sonia’s Congress, if anything, leaned even more towards minorityism, first by agreeing to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, or POTA [never mind that similar draconian provisions were brought in through amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act], and then by setting up the Sachar Committee to look into the socio-economic status of the Muslims.

You can, therefore, understand the kind of churning the party would have gone through before taking such a big ideological leap. You can also see the arguments it would have led to between the party’s more pragmatic old school politicians and the younger, new, Left-ideological core that came up around Rahul Gandhi. You can also understand why the older people think differently now.

First, even if they do not dare to say it publicly, they acknowledge that Rahul has failed multiple times and there seems no hope of a recovery or comeback at least in their remaining political careers. Second, they fear a real prospect of ending up in CBI or ED custody at so­­me point soon. And third, because unlike the relat­i­vely new generation, especially the latter-day radical im­ports from JNU, etc, they know their political history.

They remember, for example, that when their party was dominant and their rivals in as deep a hole as they are in now, if not deeper (the BJP had only two Lok Sabha MPs in 1984), they were flexible with ideol­o­­gies. Until 1966, when Punjab was divided into three (H­aryana and Himachal Pradesh being the two new st­ates), the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (the parent of the BJP) was a sworn enemy of the Shiromani Akali Dal. In the 1967 elections, they were allies against the Congress.

Subsequently, as Indian politics became unipolar under Indira Gandhi’s Congress, not only did the Jana Sangh and its socialist critics come together repeatedly, it even made common cause with the ideology most distant from it: The Left. The three prominent occas­i­ons we saw it in our working lives was the BJP and the Left joining hands to keep V P Singh’s good-for-n­o­­­thing government in power (1989-90), and then to try and defeat the Congress-led “secular” UPA gove­r­n­ments twice, in 2008 and 2012, over the India-US n­u­­clear deal and FDI in multi-brand retail, respectively.

If the BJP and the Left, on two extremes of the ideological spectrum, didn’t hesitate to align against a common enemy, why can’t the Congress now? The Congress made Indian politics unipolar then, the BJP does so now, so why not the same flexibility? That is the question Congress pragmatists would have asked. Som­e­t­i­m­es the excuse for the Left and the BJP was to keep co­r­­­­­ruption (Bofors) or generally the dynasty out. S­­o­­­m­etimes it was a common front to keep the American de­vil (nuclear deal) or rampaging MNCs (FDI in retail) at bay.

Why can’t the Congress now do something similar? Especially when the prize is to keep India’s second-largest (48 MPs in Lok Sabha) and the most “resource-rich” state, Maharashtra, away from the Modi-Shah BJP? What does the Congress have to lose, down to 52 in the Lok Sabha and 44 in the Maharashtra assembly, the smallest of the four major parties? Does it matter even if it is short-lived and the BJP returns? It was going to the BJP anyway.

We can write another thousand words pointing out flaws in this larger argument, and its risks. This has “fragile” written all over it, unless Mr Pawar can make this arrangement really last. But, when you are in such a hopeless state, you clutch at any straw. Never mind if it is coloured deep saffron.
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