Perceptions and verdicts

Print edition : January 19, 2018

AS 2017 comes to a close in political disarray, there are signals that bode an interesting, more competitive, year ahead. The elections in Gujarat continues to be about those who lost it rather than the victors. An all-acquittal judgment in the 2G spectrum case by Special Judge O.P. Saini of the CBI court has sent the needle of the moral compass of politics into a tizzy. Suddenly, the entire presumption of big-ticket corruption in the last United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime begins to look like so much manufactured lore. The presumptive loss dictum lies in tatters, as does the cultivated sanctimoniousness of its author, the former Comptroller and Auditor General.

As Judge Saini notes inter alia in his thorough and meticulous 1,552-page judgment, “I may also add that for the last about seven years, on all working days, summer vacation included, I religiously sat in the open Court from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., awaiting for someone with some legally admissible evidence in his possession, but all in vain. Not a single soul turned up. This indicates that everybody was going by public perception created by rumour, gossip and speculation. However, public perception has no place in judicial proceedings.”

The hard reality, though, is that public perception forged by rumour, gossip and speculation is the mechanism of social engineering in the digital age. If elections are about representative democracy, the social media are about a kind of unmediated direct democracy, which has little to do with the representative function of formal media and professional journalism. The war cries on the streets, and that includes the social media bylanes, carry the day. The communally-polarise-and-rule politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) touched a new low in the Gujarat elections with the Prime Minister himself, in a somewhat desperate campaign mode, throwing dark hints about a Congress collusion with Pakistan to oust the BJP from power. It may, on the face of it, have sounded like a laughable proposition, but as accessory to the crime of communalisation it could not have been more potently deadly.

Rahul Gandhi

The Gujarat elections also marked the coming of political age of Rahul Gandhi. He waded into the elections with what looked like zestful determination and by the time he emerged at the other end, though the loser in the contest, had decisively shed the “Pappu” image which his political adversaries had concocted and revelled in to ridicule and taunt him. That image, by the way, was not way off the mark to begin with. Congress leaders themselves, including many of the younger ones who one who have thought would rally around him, despaired at the prospect of his taking over the reins of the party. One could not perhaps blame them. His public pronouncements and thinking aloud on his feet were often despair-inducing.

There was, for example, this slice of live television a few years back where he was addressing students of Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, when he launched, apropos of nothing, into a nonplussing discourse on a glass being half-full versus half-empty. A glass half-full, he pointed out rather pointlessly to his audience of young scholars, could either be called that (that is, half-full) or half-empty. One would have thought he would derive a conclusion or a moral from that observation. But he left it at that, like some pithy thought for the day.

But now the man, it must be fairly said, seems more full and set to fulfil his task as the leader of the Congress in these difficult times for the party. He has displayed a combativeness and sagacity in clinching alliances that matter, which hold early promise of a repurposed and retooled national party. The politics of mahagat h bandhans (grand alliances) to forge a viable challenge to the BJP may have suffered a setback with Lalu Prasad’s further judicial indictment in yet another Bihar fodder scam case, but Rahul Gandhi seems to have taken a decisive step forward and away from the line held and dictated by regional satrapy. There is a fresh younger look at combinations that can unlock the opposition political grid.

R.K. Nagar byelection

The tension between populism and rule of law, which marks the contemporary period of the rise of the Right, was highlighted in the results of the crucial byelection to the R.K. Nagar Assembly constituency in Chennai, where T.T.V. Dinakaran—whose fortunes were seen as tied to that of his aunt V.K. Sasikala, another political worthy spending time in prison after she was convicted for corruption—pipped his nearest opponent, a veteran All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader of the O. Panneerselvam camp, by a margin of about double the number of votes. The people, it would seem, do not care about the moral implications of court verdicts when they make their political choice. It also did not help public perception in this part of the country that both the Panneerselvam and E. Palaniswami AIADMK factions ruling in Tamil Nadu in an uneasy partnership were seen as B teams of the BJP. The BJP, on its part and on its own, garnering far fewer votes than the NOTA (None of the Above) option in this election, made zero inroads into the political space, and one can see why it had perforce to rely on Trojan horses to attempt at best a rule by proxy in the State. R.K. Nagar might upend all this, even if, in the process, democratic will as demonstrated at the hustings may be at the cost of the principle of rule of law as decided in the courts of law.

The Left

As the political configuration continues to be loose and indeterminate, the one force that could play a decisive role in forging a secular alternative to the BJP, i.e. the Left, seems to be stymied because of the theoretical hair-splitting in its principal plank, the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

If denying Jyoti Basu the prime ministership when it could have mattered so much for the party and the nation, and more recently Sitaram Yechury another term in Parliament where he was, more than most, crucially galvanising the opposition to the BJP, were “historic” blunders, another one seems to be in the making if the outcome of the ongoing pettifogging quibble about whether or how the party should ally with a secular formation of opposition parties were to be for it to opt for an isolationist line and paint itself irrelevantly into a corner. That, of course, would actually serve the interests of the BJP, displacing whom the party has set as its purported principal aim.

What is frustratingly confusing is the switching stands that a section of the party leadership seems to take in its view of the BJP and the Congress. There was this curious agonising, to begin with, about whether what we are facing now in the BJP and the RSS is “fascistic” or not, as though getting the nomenclature rather than the fact right made all the difference.

What was even more nonplussing was that the same leaders would openly call the situation now obtaining fascist, no less, in public speeches and seminars, but be adamantly shy about characterising it as such in the designated party forums and deliberations. So, too, with the attitude to the Congress. Even in Kerala, where the Congress is the conventional political foe, the State party and government leadership would publicly proclaim that when it came to confronting the BJP-RSS, the party (the CPI(M)) and the opposition (the Congress) would stand together. But in discussions in the highest party fora at the central or national level, the same Congress became a political untouchable.

Confounding, so to speak, the confusion, as matters now stand, there are two tracts—one by the present general secretary of the party and another, supposedly contesting it, by the previous general secretary—in the reckoning, at the core of which apparently is the party’s stance vis-a-vis the Congress in taking on the BJP-RSS combine. Going by the description of the two in the media, they look like those near-identical, spot-the-difference contest picture frames set side by side which you find in weekend supplements of newspapers. You are supposed to spot the six or seven differences between the two pictures—maybe the collar of the shirt the guy is wearing is slightly bigger in one picture than in the other, or the handle of the teacup on the table is smaller in one than the other… you get the picture, right? But then, this is hardly the political clime for games of trivial pursuit.

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