It is clear from the reflexes of the Congress party and its ministers that it intends to brazen it out in the aftermath of the Ramdev fiasco. The immediate casualty seems to be the Jan Lokpal Drafting Committee with the government sending out a clear message to the Anna Hazare camp that it intends to finalize a Bill with or without them. The Prime Minister made a rare statement to the media to reiterate talking points his spin doctors had already put out since yesterday. With the BJP keeping up the pressure on convening Parliament, the stage is set finally for this public debate to return to the political realm, after having been hijacked by non-political actors.
While the debate finds its way to Parliament sooner or later, the political theatre is clearly shifting to Uttar Pradesh. Much of the communal rhetoric from the likes of Digvijay Singh underlines how high the stakes are for the Congress in general and for his mentee Rahul Gandhi in particular. Mayawati’s steely but balanced response to the Ramdev fiasco and Mulayam’s criticism of the UPA’s actions are a reminder to the Congress that its attempts at raising the Hindu bogey to consolidate the Muslim Vote Bank will be thwarted by its twin regional adversaries despite playing footsie with it in Delhi. Based on the current reading of the mood in Uttar Pradesh, the assembly election next year will be Mayawati’s to lose.
It is unlikely that the current political impasse or the outcome in Uttar Pradesh will unravel the UPA dispensation in Delhi. It clearly is not in the Congress’ interests to call early elections with Andhra in a mess and Uttar Pradesh far from locked in. A likely loss in U.P. for the Congress will considerably increase the odds of it serving the rest of its full term. It is also not in the interest of the principal opposition party to precipitate a mid term poll without quite having scripted a coherent federal alternative to the UPA.
The Presidential elections next year offer the perfect opportunity to take baby steps towards such a coherent alternative. The current mood in the country rooted in its scepticism of all politics and its fascination for an Independent Watchdog in the form of a Lokpal can have a positive spin-off if BJP and the other non-Congress parties can forge a consensus around the idea of a non-partisan candidate who would not act as the handmaiden of the ruling dispensation.
Who best to be a watchdog on the constitutional excesses of the UPA than a President who is not beholden to the Nehru-Gandhis, has an independent mind and is well regarded on Constitutional issues?
India has rarely seen a scenario where the party in power has not had the luxury of putting into office a President of its choice. The last time we came close to this was when the Vajpayee-led NDA-government pulled off a political masterstroke of nominating APJ Abdul Kalam who drew wide bi-partisan support. Dr. Kalam proved true to the task when it came down to the need to at least mildly assert himself against the party in government -- which interestingly was on the Office of Profit issue and Sonia Gandhi’s extra-constitutional role in the National Advisory Council.
Perhaps this is the time for non-Congress, non-BJP parties to rise above looking at everything through the prism of Gujarat 2002 and get together to at least explore the possibility of building consensus over a person of known integrity, someone who would not at least act as the handmaiden of the ruling dispensation. This could help meet the twin desires of an apolitical check on the government and the desire for not diluting the spirit of Constitution. Eminent constitutional lawyers known for their credibility and independence-- say, someone like a Soli Sorabjee or a Fali Nariman -- could inspire the confidence across both civil society groups and political parties.
Whether the non-Congress parties have the numbers in the Presidential Electoral College to successfully pull of such a coup on the Congress remains to be seen.
The idea however merits further exploration for from it can evolve a Platform for 2014 that forges a federal compact between regional parties to protect their interests and triggers a debate on Constitutional Reforms for an effective government within the boundaries of our Parliamentary System.
Shashi Shekhar writes the blog Offstumped