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Rajdeep Sardesai
Friday , July 01, 2011 at 00 : 06

Method to Digvijaya's madness


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Sanyas obviously means different things to different people. In 2003, soon after losing the Madhya Pradesh elections, Digvijaya Singh rather dramatically announced, "I have decided to take political sanyas for the next ten years." Eight years later, far from living the life of renunciation, the Congress leader appears to be making headlines every other day. Remind him about his claim of taking sanyas, and the impish smile returns: "When I said sanyas, I meant that I would not seek any government post for ten years. Have I been a minister or do I hold any official position in government?"

Minister he may be not, but there is little doubt that Digvijaya Singh is now a power centre within the complex UPA-Congress equation. In a sense, the two-time Madhya Pradesh chief minister is to UPA 2 what the Left was to Manmohan Singh's first government: the opposition within. In the first UPA avatar, the Left would openly red flag any issue which they felt would hurt their political ideology: be it the Indo-US nuclear deal or public sector privatization. In UPA 2, it's been left to Digvijaya Singh to play that adversarial role. Be it the Naxal policy, land acquisition or anti-terror laws, the Congress general secretary has been determinedly pursuing what appears to be a contrarian agenda to that of the UPA government, often creating dissonance within the ruling arrangement, quite apart from providing fodder to a ravenous media.

And yet, there is clearly a method to the seeming madness of what appears to be Digvijaya's role of in-house dissident. For many traditional Congressmen, Manmohan Singh is still the 'outsider'; the lateral entrant whose reform-friendly economist avatar is not quite what a party system based on populist hand-outs is comfortable with. Digvijaya's rhetoric appeals to the old style Congressman, more familiar with slogans rather than policy prescriptions.

Take Digvijaya's remarks on Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare. By calling Ramdev a 'thug' and suggesting that Hazare was an RSS agent, he has brought in a 'saffron' edge to the debate over the anti-corruption agitation. By questioning the government's action in sending Cabinet ministers to the airport to receive the yoga guru, he has virtually accused it of compromising with religious babas of questionable credentials. In the process, he has sought to reinforce his own identity as a 'secular fundamentalist' whose politics revolve around being the matador who is constantly getting under the skin of the Sangh Parivar bull.

As a result, after the Gandhi family, Digvijaya is now political Hindutva's hate figure number one. Whether on social media sites like Twitter or at public rallies, Digvijaya has now become a favourite whipping boy for the saffron brotherhood, a classic exemplar of what they see as Congress pseudo-secularism. By raising doubts over the arrest of Muslim youth in terror plots while openly targeting 'Hindu terror', Digvijaya stands accused by his critics of having stirred the pot of minority communalism in the guise of secularism.

Digvijaya has defended himself by claiming that he has resisted all forms of religious extremism: that as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, he arrested VHP leader Praveen Togadia and also acted against minority extremist groups. And yet, he cannot shake off the popular middle class perception of being a leader who is 'appeasing' the minorities. After all, when you rail against a Sadhvi Pragya but refer to Osama bin Laden as Osamaji, you are asking to be labeled as a pseudo-secularist.

Perhaps, that's an image which suits Digvijaya in the contemporary political context. The classic Congress worldview has been that the key to winning elections is the strong support of minorities: be it Muslims, Dalits or Adivasis. The Congress's electoral struggles over the last two decades across north India have been primarily because the party has lost the support of precisely these social groups. As an astute politician who is now in charge of the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, Digvijaya knows that any Congress revival is predicated on a Dalit-Muslim alliance on the ground. While the Dalits have been significantly empowered by Mayawati, the Muslims remain vulnerable to emotional appeals that address their anxieties and insecurities over being targeted for their religious status. Digvijaya is attempting to tap into precisely these feelings every time he dares the Sangh Parivar. In a way he is emulating another Madhya Pradesh Congressman, the late Arjun Singh, who also wore the badge of 'secularism' and 'social justice' by consciously wooing the minorities and the backward castes.

But in the age of eight per cent economic growth, identity politics of the Muslim-Mandal variety does have its limits. We are slowly inching forward from the politics of grievance to the politics of aspiration. Fear and division cannot be the basis of a new India politics. 'Inclusiveness' is the new mantra, which means that old style politics of community consolidation is losing out to good governance and bijli-sadak-pani. Neither can the BJP win elections by promising to build a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, nor can the Congress win by simply raising the Hindutva bogie at election time. Perhaps, Digvijaya knows this, but he also knows that giving it up would mean losing out on his political USP.

Post-script: There is one X factor in Digvijaya Singh's political ambitions, namely the man who he has pitched for as India's next leader, Rahul Gandhi. We know little of Rahul's politics, but they broadly seem to parallel the left of centre vision of Digvijaya. If in 2014 Rahul chooses not to take up the Congress leadership, will he look for his own Manmohan to drive his agenda? By 2014, the ten years of Diggy Raja's 'sanyas' could be well and truly over.


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More about Rajdeep Sardesai

Rajdeep Sardesai is the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He comes with 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26. During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000. An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.
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