Monday, 10 June 2013

Biggest Tantrum of Indian Politics

If Advani was really unhappy he should had convincingly demonstrate that he will be stay away from Goa, but because he was genuinely unwell was to have addressed media from his residence and passed on his best wished to Narendra Modi. It would have avoided the ridiculous spectacle on the most senior leader of BJP who trying to sound sincere in their explanations about why Advani was absent. But then, Mr Advani is sulking, and that means that denial of displeasure by way of an excuse  must necessarily be accompanied by a very public demonstration of unhappiness by ensuring that the excuse is obviously flimsy.  The assertion that 'I am not upset, I am only unwell' needs to be said huffily enough to leave people in no doubt as to the fact that the opposite is true.  In this case, what Advani is seeking is not so much to communicate to his party about what he feels, for that has been abundantly clear for a while now, but to use the prospect of public embarrassment as a way of getting what his way. 

The problem in this case, is that there was nothing very specific that he wanted. The question of whether Modi should be called the convener of the elections or its leader was a relatively minor issue; the larger question of who will lead the BJP in the next elections seems to have been largely settled well in advance. Advani's sulk was not backed by any real threat, for indeed there was no viable alternative that he could have proposed. The idea that he himself be called upon to lead the party in the elections is by now, a possibility that is theoretical enough to verge on fantasy, and there is no other candidate the party can rally round with any great enthusiasm. Indeed, if the objective was to thwart Modi's chances then perhaps the best time would be after the elections, when the alliance arithmetic is being put together. That is Modi's greatest point of vulnerability, the fear that he is too polarising a figure to lead a scattered group of alliance partners with their electoral constituencies to protect, but any attempt to have come in his way at this stage would only lead to great unrest within the party. Had Mr Advani's use of the sulk been strategic, then perhaps there was another time and another way to use it. 
Which is what makes Mr Advani's sulk more than a little sad. There is the sulk that can be a potent tool of blackmail and then there is the one that craves an acknowledgement of symbolic significance, and unfortunately Mr Advani's attempt falls in the latter category. In the former case, the sulk comes at a strategic time, and is backed by a specific demand. It also rests on a knowledge of one's own indispensability to the other side. The sulk is used to dramatically alter the previous state of equilibrium by raising the stakes significantly at a crucial moment. This kind of sulk belongs to the Kaikeyi school of thought where a tantrum is used as a pivotal moment in enforcing a new reality. 
The other kind of sulk is the one more commonly used by the likes of Mamata Banerjee, and now Mr Advani , where it used as a reflexive  vehicle of communication rather than as a deliberate instrument of change. It is an expression of an emotional response that spills over, and comes without a coherent plan. Here the only possible solution that can be imagined is that of saving face of the one sulking by some symbolic act of appeasement. Like the elderly relative at an Indian wedding, who becomes the temporary cynosure of attention because of some exaggerated problem he has found with something trivial, the only solution is to give the sulking person some emotional balm and make indulgent soothing sounds of ingratiation. Mr Advani's sulk was nothing but an invitation to be put to be put to pasture in an appropriately respectful way- the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award or the position of a Chairman Emeritus, connoting ritual significance but emphatically denying importance. 
It is interesting that the tantrum is such a common part of our political landscape. One would think that an act that reeks of immaturity and emotional neediness would have little place in the very adult world of politics, but that is far being true in India. The fact that so many politicians throw tantrums underlines the fact there is a market for these, in that at some level we accept the legitimacy of the expectation that drives such behaviour. The idea that adults retain a healthy dollop of childishness within them is implicitly understood and accepted. One has only to go back to the time when Sonia Gandhi declined to lead the government at the time of UPA's first term and remember the bizarre  and utterly cringe-worthy display of emotion that so many senior Congress leaders engaged in on national television. It was as if the leaders of the country had regressed into a state of infantile neediness, so naked were they in their abjectness. 

The dividing line between a show of strength and an admission of irrelevance is a thin one. Sometimes a gesture speaks much louder than any substantive action. The transparent excuse used by Mr Advani in this case points to his unwillingness to really rock the boat as well as his inability to compel compliance to his desires. Trapped in a reality he can neither accept nor change, his gesture is one of empty petulance and  signals the end of an era. When the  past becomes clingy and burdensome, it becomes much easier to shrug  off. This might be that moment for the BJP. As to what its future is under Narendra Modi, is another question altogether.

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