House of Hubris

In this vicious open season, you can pretty much call a member of the political class anything. Yet, you wouldn?t expect anybody there to be so dumb as not to have known that the Lokpal bill was never going to pass in Rajya Sabha on Thursday.

In this vicious open season, you can pretty much call a member of the political class anything. Yet, you wouldn?t expect anybody there to be so dumb as not to have known that the Lokpal bill was never going to pass in Rajya Sabha on Thursday. Many of the BJP?s amendments in Lok Sabha had been defeated because the UPA has majority there. These included an amendment on the Lokayukta clause, the final deal-breaker between the Congress and the rest. Many regional parties had already opposed it. Even if Mamata was a didi-come-lately on that bandwagon, you would have been smoking something really awful?and illegal?to believe the BJP would not press the same amendment in the Upper House where the UPA does not have the numbers. That is why it?s not the TMC that really blocked the bill. Its opposition was an embarrassment for the UPA. But even if the TMC had stayed with them, it still was not going to pass as long as the NDA, SP and BSP opposed it.

Conversely, while it is now convenient for the Congress to accuse the BJP of betrayal, of moving so many amendments to block the bill, would they have really been willing to defeat, with the help of the BJP, an amendment moved by their ally TMC? Any which way, therefore, this bill was either going to be defeated, or blocked in Rajya Sabha.

The issue, therefore, is not poor floor management. The issue is, what were the Congress party?s managers doing all day, since they knew they would not have the numbers even if Mamata came on board? They knew that at some point one of their ministers will need to stand up and explain why the bill cannot be put to vote in this session. Did somebody give some serious thought as to when, and how, that announcement would be made? And, most important of all, did someone?unless he had had too many late nights in this partying week already?authorise Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal to use that horrible word ?prerogative? in his beating-the-retreat speech?

One of its bills getting defeated is not nice for any government. But people would have understood it, if it wasn?t accompanied by such bad grace. A simple explanation, that the government did not have the numbers and needed more time to convince allies and the opposition, so could it please, please, bring it back in the budget session, would have worked better. Much better than the self-righteous, self-serving rubbish that was dished out at midnight. There are 187 amendments, we were told, time is needed to reconcile them, so we will assemble at some point later, and when that will be, is our ?prerogative? to decide. Just how arrogant can you be in retreat, and how suicidal. Pranab Mukherjee had explained the suspension of FDI so much better with the honest confession that he did not have the numbers and there was no point inflicting a mid-term poll on the nation because of this. A little tact, a little humility, just a bit of sincere honesty?and not at midnight but earlier in the evening?would have given an entirely different sort of closure to the evening. In these times of televised, in-your-face political discourse, nothing fails you more disastrously than a cocktail of sophistry, elf-righteousness and half-lies, and particularly so when it is laced with such touching arrogance. Prerogative? That word will keep coming back to haunt the Congress.

Nobody wanted this law to pass. The Congress itself never had any conviction in it. It even had a guilty conscience, believing, deep down, that it had succumbed too easily to Anna Hazare. The quick unravelling of his movement and thin crowds at his latest fast also made the Congress leadership feel stupid. They knew it was a deeply flawed law. But they were pushing it with a cynical political motive: pass it in Lok Sabha so it looks like you kept your promise, and then count on the NDA to block it in Rajya Sabha so you could blame them for it. This would have served a triple purpose: calming the pro-Anna mood further, bringing the Congress some brownie points, and then blaming the opposition for blocking it. To leave nothing to chance, the bill was impregnated with strategically placed mines like the minority quota. Of course, there was no way the BJP would let a bill like that pass. So you were secure, you knew exactly what the state of play would be in Rajya Sabha at whatever hour you chose to call it a day. Why couldn?t you have at least rehearsed your departing speech a bit better?

This one is easy to answer. Arrogance is the Congress party?s political hallmark. It does not acknowledge the power shift from the Centre to the states and the rising federal impulse. Fourteen years of coalition rule has not taught it a little bit of humility, whether it comes to dealing with adversaries or even allies. It behaves as if it is just a matter of time that it is back with 300-plus seats in Parliament and, in any case, that Uttar Pradesh is already won, and once the Samajwadi Party comes on board as a coalition partner in Lucknow it will tell Mamata where to get off. Their inability to communicate with her properly is nothing compared to the manner in which they treated their other ally, Sharad Pawar, never sparing an opportunity to humiliate him. It is only now that they recognise his value as not only a most reliable partner, but also as somebody who has shown the spine to take on Anna Hazare politically in their shared pocket borough. The Congress may continue to believe that Uttar Pradesh has been won, but they also know that the basic arithmetic of Rajya Sabha will remain adversely stacked against them through the term of this Lok Sabha in 2014. Will they pass the second half of their reign without being able to pass any laws? Or are they willing to change a little, and engage with their rivals and allies a little more graciously?

That was the lecture for the Congress. Now what about the BJP and Team Anna? If this special sitting signified one thing, it was the lifting of the political veil between the two. In a democracy there can be no value judgment on who supports which party. It is a free country. But while Team Anna accuses the Congress of bad faith, does it complain against the Lokayukta amendment moved by the TMC which would have got the BJP?s support? It was, after all, one of the non-negotiable demands when Anna sat on his 13-day fast in August. Has any Team Anna megaphone as yet attacked the BJP for torpedoing the bill, or are they now okay with giving up the Lokayukta demand in harmony with the BJP? And the BJP, well, they continue to behave like a party that does not believe it will ever come to power. Its conduct in this session, as also its cynical bid to hijack the Lokpal agenda for the upcoming state elections, are of a piece with that. At the end of 2011, a terrible year in so many ways, the bad news is not just that our politics is broken, but that it promises to get worse in 2012.

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First published on: 02-01-2012 at 02:43 IST