Pretenders to the throne are finding the going tough. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is showing no sign of fatigue in the face of relentless attack from the opposition, leaving in utter despair those who thought that one day they could sit where Modi is sitting now.
With just 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, the fight had gone out of the Congress Party long time ago. All it is now left with are some inane and often times comical interludes by its vice-president and chief strategist Rahul Gandhi.
Yes, it can still bring parliament to a standstill, but that is more due to lung power than oratorical skills or nuanced policy enunciations and every day it indulges in this act the party’s stock continues its inexorable journey to nothingness. Rahul Gandhi as prime minister is a very, very distant dream today.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was seen as the one capable of mounting a challenge to Modi not only because he won a comprehensive victory in the state assembly elections in October last year but also because his demeanour and utterances carried a certain courage of conviction that was missing in other leaders of the opposition.
But his ‘grand alliance’ with the convicted Lalu Prasad Yadav combined with a somewhat short-sighted policy of prohibition has left Kumar in a precarious position. His support for Modi in the ongoing demonetisation drive has sent the rumour mill on overdrive. “Nitish is getting ready to dump Lalu and return to NDA” (Modi’s National Democratic Alliance), so goes the refrain.
That support for the demonetisation came close on the heels of Bihar becoming the first non-NDA state to ratify the goods and services tax (GST) bill on which Modi has set much store for the economic rejuvenation of India, encouraging the ‘Nitish-on-the-move brigade’ to turn up the volume.
Although Kumar may be still harbouring thoughts of moving to the high chair in Delhi - what is a politician without ambition after all - he seems to have lost the challenger’s fervour and impatience that were in evidence immediately after the assembly polls.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal took his ambition to become India’s prime minister to a whole new level by calling the incumbent all sorts of names. He was ostensibly opposing Modi’s programmes and policies - and he continues to do so - but being much younger than Nitish Kumar and certainly of a different bend of mind, Kejriwal started showering abuses on Modi that even some of his staunchest supporters found difficult to justify. He probably thought that that was the language his electorate would understand better, but disillusionment is setting in faster than the winter fog over Delhi.
A series of legal setbacks coupled with a major rift in the Punjab unit of his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have left Kejriwal severely wounded. The demonetisation, if the grapevine has to be believed, has come as a bolt from the blue to Kejriwal who is facing a major cash crunch ahead of the crucial assembly polls in Punjab. The AAP’s decision to pull out of local government polls in several states is said to be a direct fallout of that fiscal deficit.
Allegations by a section of his party in Punjab that Kejriwal’s Delhi-based deputies are selling party tickets to the highest bidder - the going rate is not less that Rs20mn per seat - have created further confusion within the AAP which has not yet recovered from the loss of its state convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur who rebelled against the party chief.
Kejriwal’s biggest worry now is how to salvage the party in Punjab and challenge the ruling Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine and the Congress. Six months ago the AAP looked like giving the other two a serious run for their monies. Not any more. A defeat in Punjab could also spell doom for the AAP elsewhere, including Delhi.
This brings to the other chief pretender to the throne, Mamata Banerjee. No doubt Banerjee is a people’s leader. With almost no financial clout to brag about and a rag-tag second string to rely on, she brought the mighty Marxists to their knees ending their nearly four-decade long stranglehold on West Bengal. That in itself is a story of legendary proportions.
It may be too much to expect Banerjee to undo all that damage - to industry, agriculture, education, healthcare and what have you - that the Marxists had wrought during their long, lawless reign. But six years are good enough to know which way the wind is blowing.
Yes, the politics of murder and mayhem has changed somewhat but there is precious little to brag about in other fields. The loss of 16 assembly seats (from 227 in 2011 to 211 in 2016) may not have been a major setback because of the vast majority that Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) enjoys but it must be taken as an indicator of the people’s mood.
The state’s finances are in a mess. A fiscal deficit of Rs273bn and a revenue deficit of Rs171bn (comparative figures for lowly Bihar are Rs151bn and Rs148bn) do not augur well for any chief minister who wants to alleviate/eradicate poverty. A state largely dependent on agriculture, especially by small and marginal farmers, West Bengal has only 3% of India’s arable land but has 8% of the country’s population. Top industrialists continue to be ambivalent about investing in the state although promises have been made at various investment forums. Banerjee, therefore, has more than one reason to feel frustrated.
Modi’s demonetisation was a godsend, so to speak, for Banerjee to take out that frustration. She could see hundreds of people, especially the poor, lining up at banks and ATMs to take out small amounts of money to buy home essentials. She read the Supreme Court observation that the queues could lead to riots. Now is the time to hit out at Modi, she thought, because the people would back her and rise in revolt.
Frustration as an emotion is ill suited for politics, especially in crucial, game-changing moments like the one India is presently going through. A cool head, rather than a heart boiling over, is the need of the hour. Unfortunately Banerjee was found wanting in this aspect.
First she flew to the national capital and, together with Kejriwal, breathed fire and brimstone at Modi at a meeting in the city’s main vegetable market. Three days are all you have got to roll back demonetisation, otherwise…, she warned Modi. Nothing happened.
She then flew to Bihar’s capital city of Patna and, despite Nitish Kumar and his party staying away, organised a rally but even Lalu Prasad Yadav, a staunch critic of Modi, did not attend, adding to Banerjee’s frustration.
The next day, as her flight was about to land in Kolkata, the pilot was told there was traffic congestion at the airport and he would have to hold the aircraft hovering over the city. Banerjee immediately saw Modi’s hand in this, not just to delay her landing but to let the plane run out of fuel and crash! The chief minister simply forgot, or is not aware, that there are international aviation rules that govern such situations and a plane will never be held up over an airport if it was getting low on fuel. And was it only her life on the line in that scenario? If ever there was stupid alibi, this was it.
Banerjee lands in due course and immediately sees another conspiracy, something even more sinister for the country at large. As she drove to her office, she found Indian Army soldiers manning a toll plaza near the building. “Coup!,” she cried. Modi is sending the army to take over her secretariat, Banerjee alleged, whereas the soldiers were on a routine annual stock-taking of load carriers that pass through the plaza. This was required for mobilization in case of a calamitous emergency. And they were doing the same in nine other states.
Nobody bought the coup plot, so Banerjee changed tack and alleged that the soldiers were collecting money from the truck and bus drivers. This was flatly rejected “with contempt” by the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Eastern Command which is headquartered in Kolkata.
Politicians go to great lengths to demean and disgrace each other but dragging the nation’s army into the equation is a first, especially with charges of corruption. It is most certain that Modi had no information about what an army unit was doing at a toll plaza in Kolkata, leave alone sending it on a coup mission. But now that she has come up with this idea, if Banerjee were to one day become India’s prime minister, can we put it past her?
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