Stephen King, the uncrowned king of the horror novel genre, once noted that the reason why his books, which were calculated to scare readers witless, were so phenomenally successful is that as a civilization, we're all voyeurs. We know when we're driving along the road and see a mash-up of cars - and there's the certainty of fatalities - that it won't make for a pretty sight. And yet, we don't look away. Most of us, in fact, crane our necks to take in as much of the roadside blood and gore as we can. It's gross, of course, but we can't help ourselves.
There's something just as perversely mesmerising about a train wreck. If you saw two locomotives hurtling towards each other at top-speed, and you knew that as a bystander you couldn't do anything to avert it, your typical response - before your altruistic instinct kicked in to help the survivors - would be to treat it as a spectator sport to which you've got prime seats. And perhaps whip out your smartphone to record the moment.
We're witnessing one such slow train wreck unfold in real time in the political space - in the unwinding of the "two heads" power arrangement between Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. And we're in thrall of it, largely because it was obvious to anyone who wasn't so blind that they would not see that this colossal crash-bang was inevitable. As I'd noted on an earlier occasion, the power dyarchy arrangement between Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh was like the pushmi-pullyu character from the Doctor Dolittle series, with two heads that steer it in opposite directions. That imagery is a metaphor for a dysfunctional arrangement that renders any movement impossible, which describes the UPA government rather well.
On Monday evening, CNN-IBN reported, Delhi was abuzz with the whisper campaign of Congress leaders suggesting that Manmohan Singh's time as the front-office manager for the UPA was up, and that he ought to be replaced - by either Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi. These reports gained such resonance that the party had to step in and issue an uncharacteristic denial, and offer a bizarrre certification that Manmohan Singh would remain as Prime Minister until 2014, when the next general election is due.
Just how did this conspiratorial whisper campaign gain so much traction? Knowing what we know of power dynamics in the Congress, it seems clear that two factors are at play here. Congress leaders increasingly see Manmohan Singh as a "non-productive asset", as journalist Prabhu Chawla observed. First, the teflon coating of Manmohan Singh's personal probity has worn off very badly, particularly after the succession of scams that happened under his watch - and, in particular, after the inept cover-up initiated by former Law Minister Ashwani Kumar of the CBI investigation into the Coalgate scandal invited searing observations by the Supreme Court. There's a growing fear among second-rung Congress leaders that going into an election in 2014 with Manmohan Singh as their mascot would be politically ruinous.
Second, it appears that middle-rung Congress leaders are taking their cues from the dark hints, thrown out by the party itself, that Sonia Gandhi is less than pleased with Manmohan Singh's handling of the episode involving Ashwani Kumar and former Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal. And being more faithful than the Queen, so to speak, they are taking it as a licence to push the envelope with their criticism of him, and even giving voice to open calls for his replacement.
As I had noted here, particularly after "party sources" planted news stories in the media claiming that the resignation of the two Ministers had to extracted by Sonia Gandhi from a reluctant Manmohan Singh, the word has gone out that the Prime Minister is a bali ka bakra, who can - and perhaps will - be sacrificed at the appropriate time in the cause of ring-fencing Sonia Gandhi from the taint of corruption that has overrun the UPA government.
Evidently, all through the weekend, Manmohan Singh nursed a sense of grievous hurt that such planted media reports had tarnished what was left of his image, and made it known to his intimate circle of acquaintances that the impression that such reports conveyed - that he as Prime Minister had no say over the choice of his Ministry - would weigh him down even more from making policy decisions.
In response to his sentiments, the party then did an about-turn and put out the spin that the decision to seek the resignations of the two Ministers had been taken jointly by Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. But the spin didn't work even on Congress leaders, and even subsequently, some of them were publicly channelling the earlier line that the credit for securing the resignations went entirely to Sonia Gandhi.
It was then that the calls for replacing Manmohan Singh gained resonance. Evidently, at least a section of the Congress believes that while Manmohan Singh may have served as a useful foil for nine years, he has outlived his utility; more seriously, they believe that this is in fact Sonia Gandhi's wish as well.
It's entirely possible that Sonia Gandhi too shares that perspective, but realpolitik considerations constrain her from acting on that conviction. Even though Manmohan Singh is a liability to the party today, she doesn't have a back-up plan. The names that are being thrown up as potential replacements - AK Antony, P Chidambaram - come with their own political limitations. And, of course, the person for whom Manmohan Singh was keeping the chair warm for nine years - Rahul Gandhi - too is acutely wary of sitting in the hot seat for fear of validating public perceptions about his limitations as a politician.
Which is why the hideous pushmi-pullyu power arrangement between Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh isn't about to change anytime soon. Only, this time, the two heads of the hideous beast have been implanted with mutual distrust about the other's intentions.
It's entirely possible of course that Manmohan Singh may yet cling on to power despite the humiliations he has been forced to suffer. Sonia Gandhi too knows that even though Manmohan Singh is increasingly a political liability, she is low on replacement options. And so, the dysfunctional power arrangement may hobble on for a few more months before elections are forced on it. But there's a slow train wreck coming - and we are all the potential casualties.