ARJUN Singh, we are told by his fans in the Congress, possesses one sharp political brain. L K Advani, his disciples in the BJP would tell you, is a genuinely creative political strategist.
Like an old couple hoping to rediscover some spark of romance by spending their 50th wedding anniversary in the same place as their honeymoon, Advani and Arjun Singh are trying to recreate the ‘magic’, such as it was, of 1989 when that hopeless cliche, ‘mandal and kamandal’, hijacked our politics. India lost three full years, filled by such forgettable interregnums as V P Singh and Chandra Shekhar, just when the Cold War was ending, China and Russia were reforming, and the world was brimming with new ideas and opportunities. To be fair to him, Advani, or Rajnath Singh in his wake, is not talking obviously of the temple. Arjun Singh is more direct, first pushing for reservations in private institutions and now slicing away half of the IITs and IIMs for reserved quotas. But his desperate bid to re-invent himself as VP Singh Mark II will not benefit his party. It will damage it as much as VP Singh Mark I did. Given today’s messy politics nobody wants to vote against any idea of increasing reservations. Most electoral hotspots of the country have OBC leaders of their own: Lalu and Nitish in Bihar, Mulayam in Uttar Pradesh. Barring Vajpayee’s late dash in his last two years, with his creative foreign policy and some aggressive reform, the BJP’s rise in power marked the end of its political imagination. If there is another national election this year, as well might be the case, provided the latest gang-up gathers strength, the Congress needs a slogan, a programme, an agenda that will counter the appeal of the Left, the Right, and the third front satraps. Unlike the BJP, which at least has some loyal NDA allies, the Congress may have none except, maybe, Lalu and DMK. So what does its one-man brains trust do, but dust up an old divisive idea from fellow thakur, VP Singh. It is dangerous for India if its two largest parties, its only two national parties who even today share nearly 300 seats in Parliament and, in a twisted way, together represent the will of a vast majority, fall back on these outdated ideas just because they are short on intellect and imagination.
In today’s India, you can no longer sway voters with talk of the past. So while the Congress governments were defeated in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the voter defied anti-incumbency to re-elect Sheila Dikshit in Delhi because he thought she had performed. That this was no isolated shift and that this new mood also cut into the Mandalised heartland, became evident in Bihar where the voter stormed out of the ossified caste-based trenches to vote Lalu-Rabri out. And what’s the slogan that Nitish Kumar used? More reservations? Temples? I heard him speak at rallies countering Lalu’s favourite war cry of empowerment to the downtrodden: apni laathi ko tel pilao (season your sticks with oil). Laathi ko tel nahin, kalam ko syahi pilane ka samay hai (don’t soak your lathi in oil, time has come to fill your pens with ink), he said, because it is education and knowledge that will bring you equality. I know a dozen political pundits, experts on fine caste divisions, exponents of AJGAR, MAJGAR, KHAM, MY, all kinds of dreadful acronyms representing caste combinations, laughing at Nitish then. This India is waiting for somebody who will give them an idea, a dream, even a slogan, a better future as Indians, not as Muslims or Brahmins, or Yadavs or Dalits. Elections between 2003 and ‘05 have shown the politics of blood feuds is now dying. The Congress has to remember nearly 40 per cent of Indians who vote in 2009 would have been born after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. And the BJP, that 30 per cent would have been born after Bofors broke, and nearly 20 per cent after the Mandir-Mandal movements of 1989.
Can the Congress tell Arjun Singh to get off the reservation horse and get on the equality wagon by promising, instead, to build ten Kendriya Vidyalayas and Navodaya Vidyalayas, one of the greatest contributions of Rajiv Gandhi to India’s future, in every state? There is no percentage in this politics for either national party. National parties, by definition, cannot fight small guerrilla skirmishes and win.