By Swapan Dasgupta
The first 100 days of the second UPA Government is an occasion that will go largely unnoticed in the country. Even the TV polls and the lavish advertisements are unlikely to register too much in the public consciousness. The simple reason is that, all pronouncements notwithstanding, 100 days is a contrived benchmark to assess the performance of any government. Most people need a longer time span before they can come to a decision about whether a government is a performing or non-performing one and whether or not it corresponds to their sense of self-interest.
At the risk of jumping to hasty conclusions a few observations may be in order. First, while there is dissatisfaction with the government’s inability to control food prices—said to have increased 100 per cent in 100 days—this has not yet translated into a larger political dissatisfaction with the Congress. A government in its second term may not enjoy a prolonged honeymoon but this doesn’t imply that the process of estrangement has begun. Politically, the UPA Government still looks comfortable and this level of comfort has little to do with performance. After the fear that the 15th Lok Sabha election would throw up an inconclusive verdict, India seems reassured that a stable government is in place.
Secondly, the absence of the Left from the cast of the ruling coalition hasn’t meant a spurt in the reforming zeal of the government. The Congress is essentially a party wedded to the idea of an intrusive and interventionist state. There has been no change in that philosophy and the global endorsement of spendthrift governments to fight recession has meant that the UPA will not depart from its well-trodden path of statism. If there was an expectation in corporate circles and among innocent business journalists that the comfort zone of politics will facilitate some radical change, the first 100 days has done nothing to provide it nourishment. On the contrary those believers in responsible fiscal management may find enough in the unmanageable fiscal deficit to fear for the future.
Finally, while the Prime Minister came out of the general election with enhanced personal stature, he has chosen to not drive home the advantage in the first 100 days of his second innings. Manmohan Singh was never an assertive Prime Minister. His reputation for playing it safe and trying not to ruffle feathers is legendary. This may not win him a huge fan following but it has also ensured that a campaign of visceral hate against him is unlikely to ever succeed. His image and reputation have been built on decency and understated competence. In recent months, he tried to break the mould only once—at the Sharm-el-Sheikh summit with the Pakistan Prime Minister. But this attempt to think out of the box and be extra generous towards the neighbourhood rogue enthused neither the country nor the strategic affairs community. Rather than persist, Manmohan chose to retreat without fuss and reserve his cards for a future occasion. The Sharm-el-Sheikh fiasco also ensured that the bid to accommodate “global concerns”, a euphemism for US pressure, on climate change has been put on hold. It will probably be re-emerge unexpectedly at the Copenhagen Summit.
Manmohan Singh may want to give the impression that he is a political novice but there is no doubt that the goodwill the UPA Government continues to enjoy at the end of an unspectacular 100 days owes a lot to him. While many of the UPA ministers are thoroughly incompetent and some of them lack integrity, the overall impression that the country is heading in the right direction owes a lot to popular trust in the Prime Minister. As long as this trust is not shaken, the UPA will continue to be treated indulgently.
It is also a truism to suggest that this trust will not be shaken as long as the main opposition party continues to wage war against itself. Manmohan Singh and the Congress seem to be shining when compared to a BJP that has completely lost sight of its political responsibilities. The main opposition doesn’t lack the ammunition to either take pot shots or undertake sustained artillery fire on the government. Unfortunately, its present leadership is either incapable or has lost the will to fight a long war.
Mohan Bhagwat said in his press conference last Friday afternoon that the BJP must resolve its own battles, without looking outside mediation. Once this principle is accepted and the leaders who have a stake in the future put their heads together—as they belatedly did on Friday evening—it will not be long before the BJP begins to get its act together. There are some long-term issues of strategy that need careful deliberation but two immediate priorities—one honourable retirement and one dishonourable discharge—are apparent to all but the wilfully obtuse. It is also clear that any delay in doing what has to be done—on grounds of either compassion or astrology—will only worsen the situation, provoke a scorched earth response, guarantee a political defeat in Maharashtra and ensure that the second 100 days of the UPA looks far better than the actual experience.
The BJP is a lot into Mao Zedong these days. Three years before he instructed his deranged Red Guards to “bombard the headquarters”, the Great Helmsman penned a few lines of poetry that are worth repeating: “On this tiny globe/ A few flies dash themselves against the wall,/ Humming without cease/ Sometimes shrilling, sometimes moaning…/ Away with all pests!/ Our force is irresistible.” Bad poetry but a nice thought.