Sunday, July 09, 2006

Failure in full strength (July 9, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

It has taken the Indian middle classes just over 25 months to formally terminate their honeymoon with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the UPA Government. The point of endurance had been unacceptably stretched during the kerfuffle over reservations in April and May but the flak had largely been directed at Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh. This month the Rubicon has been crossed.

First, there was the Government’s complete inability to cope with the spiralling prices of daily necessities. The attempt by the Congress to be too clever by half and distance itself from its own government also came a cropper. Few, if anyone, bought the ingenuous argument that consumers were paying more for dal, sugar and tomatoes because the previous government erred some four years ago.

Secondly, the UPA’s benign neglect of investment in infrastructure is beginning to manifest itself in bottlenecks and disruption. North India has been plagued by unbearable power cuts, and the business of Mumbai has been disrupted by the failure of successive governments to upgrade the sewers. Never mind fulfilling the Prime Minister’s promise of replicating Shanghai, it is now doubtful whether India will be able to successfully host the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Meanwhile, Rs 40,000 crore is being poured into the cesspools of corruption under the guise of rural employment because someone wants to appear Lady Bountiful.

Thirdly, the explosion of private agendas is making governance incoherent. If Arjun Singh’s quota game wasn’t bad enough, the past fortnight has witnessed a reckless Health Minister trying to govern through flights of whimsy. Coalitions have in-built uncertainties but by now every bit player has chosen to do his own thing. The PMK wants the AIIMS Director out; the DMK won’t countenance a Cabinet resolution on a small divestment of Nyeveli Lignite Corporation; the Information and Broadcasting Minister is proceeding with legislation that will make the Indian media as “free” as China’s; and the Commerce Minister would rather he wasn’t ridiculed by the international media for putting World Cup football over WTO negotiations.

Even foreign policy, hitherto the prerogative of the Centre, appears to have been outsourced. The CPI(M) is cutting its own deals with Nepali Maoists, with tacit approval of a section of the government. The DMK is pressing for a U-turn in India’s Sri Lanka policy—a move calculated to have catastrophic consequences. The Muslim lobby has coerced the government into once again endorsing the fanatics and suicide bombers in West Asia, over the one country that has been a consistent friend. And the National Security Adviser is busy playing the Kerala card in the UN and making India a laughing stock in the race for the Secretary-General’s post.

Finally, the country seems no longer in any mood to digest all those stories about serial unhappiness in Race Course Road. We heard that the Prime Minister was “unhappy” with Natwar Singh but he nevertheless issued him a clean chit on the Volcker Report. He was “unhappy” that his HRD Minister started another quota war but he hasn’t moved his little finger to check the future onrush of divisive legislation. And now he is said to be “unhappy” and “anguished” that the DMK, backed by the Communists, have made a monkey of all plans to raise resources without imposing crippling new taxes. So severe was his distress that whereas M. Karunanidhi asked for status quo on Neyveli Lignite, the Prime Minister ended up putting all divestment on hold. With this phenomenal explosion of unhappiness, is it any wonder that every blackmailer is convinced that there is percentage in keeping Manmohan Singh permanently aggrieved?

In less than a month India has witnessed a subtle but important transformation. From a weak Congress-led coalition government the country has moved into a Third Front Government headed by the Congress. Those who missed out on the chance of experiencing Charan Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Deve Gowda, and I.K. Gujral or, for that matter, Muhammad Shah Rangila, have their opportunity to relive history.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, July 9, 2006)

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