oiled statistics are a familiar pageant in the great carnival called an election. Dirty tricks are another story. The difference is between a juggler's dazzle in the afternoon sun and a necromancer's prowl through a moonless graveyard. The dark arts smell of blood and leech.
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram stood economic statistics on their head when he joined the coordinated Congress response to a rising BJP challenge. But the BJP should not feel lonely. Chidambaram used similar tactics to stain his predecessor Pranab Mukherjee's record.
His sleight of hand this time, while comparing UPA to NDA, was to match middle with middle without indicating whether he was addressing ascent or descent. If you go up the hill or slip down, the statistical mid-point will be the same. NDA lifted the poor growth rate it had inherited and took it beyond 8%; UPA picked it up on a high and drove it down back into the jitters. Such arguments do not travel beyond partisan cheers; the voter who is buying vegetables on a devalued income knows the truth.
This is not the first election that UPA has fought. Its 2009 campaign was an object lesson in angelic purity compared to what is happening now. It is only a nervous ruling party that feels compelled to create an enemies list and mobilise a sewerage brigade.
The work being done by the establishment's dirty tricks department has a more malicious streak. It manufactures allegations on the assumption that some mud will stick. Throwing mud, however, soils your own hands as well. Dirty tricks, to coin a phrase, will not wash with the public.
This is not the first election that UPA has fought. Its 2009 campaign was an object lesson in angelic purity compared to what is happening now. It is only a nervous ruling party that feels compelled to create an enemies list and mobilise a sewerage brigade. In 2009, UPA had its share of worries, not least being the cash-for-votes scandal in the nuclear deal legislation. But it also had a positive narrative which raised hopes among the young. Those hopes have turned to ash, with electoral consequences that are becoming more apparent by the day.
But what is doing fatal damage to Congress is the total disarray within the establishment. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is being humiliated time and again, not by Opposition but by his own Congress party. The confusion and somersault over the convicted politicians' ordinance, is only one, albeit startling, instance. This was a Cabinet decision, not a throwaway order. All the heavy lifters, including Chidambaram, Sushil Shinde and Kamal Nath, put their support on record much before Rahul Gandhi dismissed the ordinance as complete nonsense. His language was a bit peremptory, sounding more like a playground retort than a dispute over high policy. Be that as it may, if that is the Congress view, then Manmohan Singh, along with his Cabinet, should resign immediately. Such warfare between a ruling party and its Prime Minister is unprecedented.
But this is unlikely to happen. It is not principle but politics that shaped the changing stand of the Congress. Rahul Gandhi walked away from a Cabinet decision not when it was made, but when the popular mood turned hostile, and President Pranab Mukherjee gave reason to believe that he would not sign the ordinance in a hurry.
It is embarrassing to watch the last shards of credibility crumble around a Prime Minister who has been in office for nearly a decade. His two great personal initiatives in foreign policy, pushing for peace with Pakistan and creating a dynamic new relationship with America, have run aground. It is a coincidence that his final efforts in both culminate in America this week. His visit to the White House has all the warmth of a desultory retirement dinner financed by a quick whip-around. And his conversation with Nawaz Sharif haemorrhaged in the terrorist bloodshed of Jammu even before it could take place. The first is a non-event, the second a non-starter.
Again, what is disconcerting — or should be, for the Prime Minister — is the manner in which his own Congress Party has distanced itself from the Pakistan dialogue, with leaders as senior as Ambika Soni going public with their disapproval. If Narendra Modi is on top of the Congress hit list, then it seems that Prime Minister Singh is second.
Is Dr Manmohan Singh a stoic or a masochist? To take punishment from the Opposition is part of the give and take of democratic politics, but to accept such dismissive barbs from one's own colleagues requires a temperament that is not easy to decipher. Perhaps Dr Singh feels that he should not rock the boat on which he sails, but that boat is being tossed into a tornado by his own navigators.
There is no government left. What we have instead is a desultory squabble in which no minister can be sure of where he stands, or where he should stand, on any issue. A technical structure will hold office, while Congress continues to hope that some miracle between now and next March will prevent an electoral meltdown. Miracles need saints, and there are no saints in politics.