By Swapan Dasgupta
Had competitive politics been running on full steam, it is likely that Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar would have been subjected to unending taunts about his promise to reduce sugar prices in 10 days. Those 10 days have come and gone and not only is the price of sugar at an exorbitant level but there is every likelihood that petrol, diesel and LPG prices may sky-rocket and add to the inflationary spiral.
Tragically, the country is witnessing a curious phase of non-politics whereby the UPA Government is getting away with its colossal mismanagement and the Opposition is either paralysed or in search of Mickey Mouse issues. The war of words between the Shiv Sena and Rahul Gandhi is a classic case of tamasha (with Bollywood stars also chipping in) substituting for serious politics. Also absurd are the periodic bouts of indignation over Shashi Tharoor’s twitter messages.
Equally pitiful is the Prime Minister’s contrived sense of urgency. He has asked his Ministers to subject their performance to evaluation by ‘experts’ and he has convened a meeting of Chief Ministers to discuss inflation. Given past experience it may be safe to conclude that non-performing Ministers will continue unscathed, never mind the gratuitous concern of the Congress Working Committee. The Chief Ministers conference was just another talking shop. If inflation is brought under control, it will not be due to the pro-active intervention of the Government but because of market correction.
The extent to which complacency and arrogance have overwhelmed the Government is quite remarkable. There are many Congress leaders who boast that the party is guaranteed to be in power till 2019, come what may. To them, it doesn’t matter if Manmohan Singh is acquiring the image of a non-performing PM. According to glib prophecies that are being mouthed in Lutyens’ Delhi, a faltering Singh will relinquish power at least a year before the next general election. The successor — and there is no debate about his identity — will unleash a wave of euphoria and promise a new age of optimism. The election will be fought to give him the necessary mandate to herald ‘youth power’ and usher new faces into the Government. The electorate will readily oblige and the Congress will be sitting pretty till 2019.
Regardless of whether or not these calculations work out, the Government is conducting itself in a manner that presupposes that voters will inevitably respond to the dynastic call and re-elect India’s ‘natural leaders’. In the interregnum, all difficulties can be brushed aside and awkward questions tackled with a sleight of hand.
The favourite ploy is to pretend that there is a difference between the party and the Government. This is an old Communist trick and it is laughable to see the Congress falling back on it — and fairly successfully. Thus Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi expresses concern over the hardships to the common people on account of food inflation. There is a flurry of activity, tangential attacks are mounted on Pawar and some administered prices are temporarily modified until the fuss dies down.
This was the methodology employed by Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh who travelled to Azamgarh to commiserate with the families of those held under serious terrorist charges. Confronted with criticism, the party tried to distance itself from Digvijay. On his part, Digvijay cleverly cited the prior approval of the owners of the party. The presumption was that such duplicity would keep both sides — the anti-terror lobby and the ‘victimised’ Muslim community — happy.
Recall the controversy over Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh’s statements both before and after the Copenhagen Climate Change conference, and you will detect a pattern.
It was also comic to see the Congress use this trick to duck insolent queries about the logic of a Padma award to a dodgy NRI restaurateur. The expedient suggestion that this signals the beginning of the end for someone high up in the Prime Minister’s Office may well be true. But the question as to why the award was given in the first place was neatly ducked.
When there are no elections in the offing, there is a readiness to think that governance is all about the tittle-tattle of the Delhi durbar. Therefore, the Sharm el-Sheikh joint declaration with Pakistan was questioned by the Congress and the Government sought to lay the entire blame on a bad ghost writer. In Parliament, the Government came up with an interpretation of the declaration that was at odds with the one offered by the co-signatory. Today, the truth is finally out. The man accused of poor drafting skills — the one thing he is certainly not guilty of — has been elevated to the post of National Security Adviser, and soon after assuming responsibility he has guided India back to the spirit of Sharm el-Sheikh.
It is unduly harsh to say that Pakistan has got away with the Mumbai massacre, but it would be fair to say that Islamabad now knows that a Hindu has an infinite capacity to endure pain and still smile at those who inflicted it. In the value system of our neighbouring country, this resilience doesn't necessarily prompt grudging respect. It reinforces the caricature of the cowardly Hindu.
There is, of course, another conclusion that Pakistan can legitimately draw. It is now becoming increasingly evident that governance and statecraft are handled in a very cavalier fashion by the UPA Government. Scholars may attribute this to the age-old lack of strategic sense of Hindus but in today’s India there is a more elementary explanation: The lack of any really worthwhile all-India Opposition. If India wants to do better, it will have to re-invent an alternative to the UPA. Till then, we are destined to blunder from one unaccountable position to another.