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Commonwealth Journalists' Association

By M.J. Akbar

One of the more bewildering aspects of electoral democracy is the mesmerising power of false comfort. It stretches from silly posturing to incomprehensible self-delusion, but nothing illustrates its meaninglessness better than the answer to an obvious question: what does a politician hope to achieve by denying a truth that is glaringly evident to everyone else, and will be officially confirmed within 48 or 72 hours? Nothing. Perhaps this cocoon of illusion is the last hope of the doomed, as they seek desperately to postpone the date of execution in the hope of some miraculous reprieve. God does not waste His miracles on political parties.

In the brief interim between the last ballot and counting, the Bengal CPI(M)’s state committee gathered at party headquarters and reassured itself that it was winning at least 150 seats, or just enough to get a majority. Then they went public with this claim, in language that was hectoring, bullying and arrogant, as if they had distilled their principal character flaws into one last broadside. The state chief Biman Bose, normally the most soft-spoken of men, promised that media would have to lick the spit they had hurled at his party after the results were known. Other leaders turned ballistic in the tirades against their object of hatred, Mamata Banerjee, heroine of the subaltern that the Left had lost. They were crude, sexist, tasteless. But this futile rage did serve to expose precisely why the CPM has lost power in Calcutta after 34 years. The party had become so blind and numb that it neither saw nor sensed that the ground had slipped beneath its feet. Unless there is some dramatic self-correction its behaviour in defeat could cost the CPM more than the defeat itself.

The Congress exercise in false comfort is far more subtle and effective. Unlike the Bengal CPM the Congress has learnt how to handle bad news. It hides the truth behind seven veils, and you can easily end up admiring the gauze. The facts are cold. Congress had a spectacular and well-deserved victory in one state, Assam, thanks to the splendid leadership of Tarun Gogoi, fared poorly in Kerala and was devastated in Tamil Nadu. The Kerala Left, led by the remarkable V.S. Achuthanandan, almost turned the tide by decimating Congress targets in the UDF alliance. Congress won only 38 of its 82 seats, and had it not been for the state-specific Muslim League’s 20 victories in the 24 seats that it contested, the Left would have formed the government in Trivandrum. It was a consolidation of mosque and church that tipped the balance just barely towards the Congress-led UDF. In the old days a League leader Mohammad Koya would have demanded chief ministership as reward, and settled for Number 2 in the administration. But the League is now led by quieter types like E. Ahamed. Perhaps Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can say thank you by promoting Ahamed to Cabinet in his next shuffle.

In Tamil Nadu, the Congress won only five out of 63 seats it contested. The facile explanation will attribute this to association with the DMK. But the Congress has done everything it could to distance itself from DMK corruption, even sending A. Raja to jail. Its super-holy stance has been that neither friend nor foe would be spared. The voter can see through gauze much more clearly than the psephologist or a journalist. The flatulent cynicism of both these tribes is such that they spread the notion that the DMK-Congress might even win because of caste arithmetic and money power. In other words, these subsidiary ruling classes argued that the Tamil voter had been corrupted, and would therefore condone DMK corruption. This patronising view was an insult to the Tamil voter, who answered the insult by wrecking the DMK-Congress alliance.

Congress rode to 42 seats in Bengal on Mamata Banerjee’s coattails, so any congratulations are misplaced. The Congress vote has declined across the country, apart from Assam. The electorate is hugely unimpressed by Rahul Gandhi’s personally selected list of handpicked “youth” candidates, who were generally pulped. Achuthanandan’s dismissive tag for them, of “Amul babies”, will stick until they provide evidence that they have grown up. And Jagan Reddy’s triumph in Andhra Pradesh is proof that the party has nowhere to hide in what used to be the party’s fortress.

The one genuine bit of comfort for the Congress is the fact that its main opponent, the BJP, has been denied the consolation of even false comfort. It was minced in Assam and could not pick up a serious seat in Bengal or the South. New forces, regional and sub-regional, are rising to pick up the slack left behind by national parties. A process that accelerated in the 1990s has gathered fresh energy.

The big boys will recover, but only if they accept a basic truth: alibis are a balm, not a medicine.

The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.

M.J. Akbar’s latest book Tinderbox: Past and Future of Pakistan is now available in good bookshops.