Monday, August 29, 2011

Anna gifts UPA appraisal chance - The winners, the losers and the Rahul question provide clues on assets and liabilities

Anna gifts UPA appraisal chance
- The winners, the losers and the Rahul question provide clues on assets and liabilities

Aug. 28: Anna Hazare's fast has provided an unintended chance for the UPA government and the Congress to carry out a mid-term appraisal of its human resources.

If the government and the party were to conduct a professional assessment, they would come across several eye-openers. (See chart)

First, the party and the government should listen more to their younger leaders who appear to have had a firmer finger than the old guard on the pulse of the people.

Relatively younger leaders such as Sandeep Dikshit, Milind Deora, Jitin Prasada, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Priya Dutt had vigorously campaigned for a solution when it appeared that both the government and Team Anna were painting themselves into irreconcilable corners. Dikshit played a frontline role by negotiating with Arvind Kejriwal of Team Anna, while the others worked behind the scenes.

These young guns made it clear to the party that the signals they were picking up from the ground did not bode well for the government, even though several sections of the people felt that Team Anna was also being unreasonable.

Their political senses were sharper than the others', which raises the question whether the party will now give them more responsible roles to salvage the image of UPA II in the remaining two-and-a-half years of its term.

But that does not mean the Congress can afford to jettison its proven assets. In the end, the game-changer was not Rahul Gandhi, the face of the young brigade, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh whose political skills are often overshadowed by the more fashionable economic reforms of the nineties.

The Prime Minister's unexpected — and impromptu, as it turned out later — speech in which he made rare references to himself and his family suggested that all drafts be discussed in the House. It was an offer few could refuse.

Singh had taken charge of the crisis management soon after it became clear that the legalistic and administrative approaches of P. Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal, two of the UPA's finest minds, were not being able to address the political challenge. They had apparently presumed that Hazare was not capable of posing a potent threat because of what they saw as the unreasonableness of his demands.

Lack of foresight and planning in the home ministry had led to the Tihar jail drama that turned out to be a public relations disaster. The argument that Hazare was sent to jail solely on a magistrate's decision showed that such a sensitive operation was not planned to the last detail.

The Prime Minister, however, retrieved the situation by replacing Sibal and Chidambaram with Salman Khurshid and Pranab Mukherjee. While Mukherjee facilitated the setting for the talks to end the stalemate, Khurshid emerged as the government's new crisis manager.

Singh also demonstrated flexibility — an indispensable asset while dealing with a crisis — by engaging Vilasrao Deshmukh. The Prime Minister, who apparently had reservations about Deshmukh and had demoted him in the last cabinet shuffle, tapped the minister's experience in dealing with Hazare and gave him the freedom to pursue the matter in his own style. Deshmukh managed to establish direct contact with Hazare while law minister Khurshid tried to soften his aides.

Khurshid, whose skills were rarely put to good use by the government earlier, has revealed the depth of the Prime Minister's involvement.

"Every step was led by him (Singh) and every decision was led by him. For four days, the Prime Minister sat there almost like he was in a control room, monitoring every step we took and every word we spoke…," Khurshid told Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN news channel.

Khurshid also referred to the unenviable task of Chidambaram and Sibal and mentioned "intransigence". "They (Chidambaram and Sibal) were involved at a very difficult stage. They have to take difficult calls. There was intransigence on both sides, particularly on the other side," the law minister said in reply to a question.

However, Khurshid did not agree that the two were withdrawn from the negotiations. "They were never withdrawn. Nobody was withdrawn. They did what was required to do. You may not be popular with the crowd at a particular moment. I am not prepared to accept that they were discredited," Khurshid said.

While the winners and losers on this count are settled, Rahul's role remains an open-ended issue. Congress leaders agree that his speech dispelled suggestions of a disconnect between the Nehru-Gandhi family and the government on the Hazare issue. The speech also had several strands that drew attention to the threat to plurality.

However, an academic suggestion to make the Lokpal a constitutional body got highlighted.

The government's objective was to concede as little as possible — it eventually succeeded in doing so as the fast was called off after a resolution that only agreed "in principle" to Hazare's suggestions was adopted without a vote. But Rahul's attempt to give the Lokpal a higher status broke the cardinal rule in negotiations: never offer more than what is being sought.

Besides, Rahul had intervened at zero hour, usually meant to raise specific demands on a contingent situation, and an impression was created that he was grandstanding and speaking out of turn after the Prime Minister had clearly laid down the line a day before.

Rahul's speech was appreciated by many but it gave the Opposition a chance to take pot shots at him and question his political maturity. "Whenever there is a serious subject, he is a fish out of water," an Opposition leader said.

As Rahul is considered the future Congress candidate for Prime Minister and the Opposition has not yet come up with a formidable challenger, the frequency of such scrutiny and uncharitable remarks is bound to rise.

Some Opposition leaders and Congress ministers had also looked askance at Rahul's absence in the House on Saturday when the debate took place. Congress sources said Rahul was travelling for a reason associated with the family. But the Opposition leaders wondered if some adjustments could have been made on such an important day so that he could be present in the House.

A silver lining for the government is that the problem of how to engage with the BJP has been resolved.

UPA I had felt that L.K. Advani had not yet come to terms with the BJP's shock defeat and was too restive for a meaningful engagement. UPA II couldn't decide who to speak to: Sushma Swaraj or Arun Jaitley. The past few days, however, have seen Jaitley emerge as a far more reasonable politician than Sushma.

Government sources said Jaitley acted responsibly despite flip-flops by party chief Nitin Gadkari, who staunchly supported the Hazare campaign under RSS pressure.

Unlike Advani, Jaitley didn't ask for the Prime Minister's resignation although he provided a comprehensive criticism of the government.


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