Sunday, June 18, 2006

Politics is on a dead cat bounce (June 18, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

The turbulence in the global equity markets has, if nothing else, helped add to our collective vocabulary. A ghoulishly evocative term used these days to describe the all-too-brief recovery before the inevitable downhill slide is “dead cat’s bounce”. The expression, as someone gleefully explained, stems from the belief that even a dead cat is certain to bounce if dumped from a sufficiently towering height.

It is a shame to confine this wonderful expression on the inexplicable roller-coaster ride of the stock markets. As I see it, the course of contemporary Indian politics is beginning to resemble a dead cat’s bounce. We have a well-meaning Prime Minister who gets all excited by equally well-meaning ideas centred on GDP growth rates, investments in infrastructure and the pricing of petroleum products. Regardless of your voting preferences, there is not much in Manmohan Singh’s platitudes we can seriously object to. Some even admire his single-mindedness in the face of distractions. The problem is that each time the good Sardar tries to focus public attention on what is called “development” issues”, in walks bear operators like Arjun Singh, Prakash Karat and A.B. Bardhan with their antediluvian proposals. The Prime Minister being too weak and unsure of himself to tell the bear pack where to get off, the government’s confidence ratings fall steeply.

A small piece of good news, like some item girl being kissed by someone we have never heard of before or Sonia Gandhi telling the nation that she is not amused by the new Saral tax form, triggers a distraction and leads to a dead cat’s bounce. Then, with an air of dreary resignation, the nation resumes its downhill trot.

It’s actually remarkable how effortlessly the UPA Government has managed to make the Great India Story look jaded. In presiding over the most Left-wing government for a very long time, the UPA is heralding the colossal mismanagement of public finances, rising interest rates, the growth of Islamist and Maoist terrorism and drift in foreign policy. From being a showcase of democracy and entrepreneurship, the Government has in just two years successfully squandered a rich inheritance. The world is still not willing to write off India but if the country persists with its present state of rudderless drift, it will only be a matter of months before the focus reverts to China—a state of affairs which will not displease the Left.

The mood wouldn’t have been so depressing had there been evidence that the UPA is a passing show and that, sooner rather than later, the firm of Singh, Singh, Karat and Bardhan will become another footnote in history. Between 1996 and 1998, India went through an equally dismal patch—we even had a Prime Minister who couldn’t look beyond the Punjabi quarters of South Delhi—but at that time there was at least the reassurance that the coming election would herald change, and change for the better. Today, there is no comforting faith in the future. One CPI(M) leader has even suggested that those Indians who want to vote with their feet, in other words emigrate, should be charged a punitive tax.

If the Government is rudderless and self-destructive, the disease has rubbed off on the opposition. Confronted with prize pickings and, to use a football analogy, almost nothing between its forward line and the other side’s goalkeeper, the former ruling combine has repeatedly ensured that it is ruled off side. Part of it owes to the fact that some members of the team seem hell bent on scoring self-goals but the more important reason is that the NDA forward line resemble a Veteran’s XI playing a charity match. Obviously, if you don’t have the wherewithal to withstand the rigours of a 90-minute game the question of tactics and strategy become notional. So dismal is the NDA’s track record that it has repeatedly failed to convert penalty shots into goals. If you exclude Narendra Modi, who appears to be the last man standing, there is not even the reassurance of a dead cat’s bounce.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, June 18, 2006)

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