By Swapan Dasgupta
For the first time since its re-election in May 2009, the UPA Government conveys an unmistakable impression of being in utter disarray. The tell-tale signs of a regime losing direction are all too apparent. The oft-repeated promise, made at the beginning of the year and subsequently, to bring inflation under control, has turned out to be hollow. The Kashmir Valley which enjoyed two years of relative calm has erupted viciously, much to the delight of Islamabad. The "peace process" with Pakistan which features very high on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's agenda has floundered horribly, leaving Indian diplomacy in a state of incoherence. There is an undeclared civil war within the Congress on various issues, with its General Secretary Digvijay Singh openly questioning the political sagacity of Home Minister P.Chidambaram on the battle against Maoists. In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress has experienced a humiliating debacle in the by-elections in the Telengana region. And finally, the extravagant 'coming out party' for a resurgent India that was to have coincided with the Commonwealth Games in October, has left India's international image in tatters, with the Congress caught between the need to save "national honour" and yet maintain a healthy distance from a party MP who is fast becoming the personification of sleaze.
In normal circumstances, the appearance of political vulnerability should have had the power scurrying to call in its disaster management experts. The mood in the governing establishment is, however, far from purposeful. The party is still proceeding on the assumption that all is well and the present difficulties are a storm in the teacup.
The sense of complacency, somewhat reminiscent of the smug reassurance of the British in "fortress Singapore" in the last month of 1941, is based on the belief that the Opposition has been hobbled in a series of pre-emptive strikes. In Gujarat, the dangerous Narendra Modi is thought to be beleaguered on account of the assault launched by the Congress' crack 'special operations' team, aka CBI. In Karnataka, the kerfuffle over the Reddy brothers of Bellary has given the state Congress ammunition for a more conventional war. In West Bengal, a rampaging Mamata Banerjee is causing endless grief to a dispirited CPI(M).
And as an act of bravado, the China-friendly Minister of Environment has carried the spirit of political vendetta to Orissa, against a Naveen Patnaik Government whose only crime is to have won three consecutive elections. Jairam Ramesh has earned himself lots of brownie points by endorsing the Delhi Government's transformation of India's greenest metropolis into a concrete jungle and yet playing spoiler to the POSCO project that subverts the interests of countries which view India as an endless source of raw materials.
The Congress belief that an opposition more concerned with hosting the equivalent of kitty parties, where MPs and leaders can showcase the careers they perhaps should have pursued, is incapable of mounting a serious political challenge to the Manmohan Singh Government may well be right. On the CWG controversy, for example, a section of the BJP leadership has entered into cosy sweetheart arrangements with the ruling establishment and been sufficiently compromised into offering nothing more than token resistance. A wing of the CPI(M) is so anxious to settle scores with its General Secretary Prakash Karat that it has little inhibition about wanting to 'settle' with the Congress at the national level in return for a covert anti-Mamata understanding in West Bengal. A faction of the Janata Dal (U) has been pressing Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to jump into bed with the Congress, an arrangement they believe could lead to a happy convergence of interests in both Patna and Delhi.
The creation of a compromised, 'loyal' opposition is a legitimate part of politics, and a strategy that both the UPA and NDA have, during their stints in office, deployed. Yet, even a discredited and wilfully ineffective opposition cannot help the government if it is unwilling to help itself. Unless it specialises in its own shenanigans, the focus of any electorate is not primarily on the opposition but on the government. Unless the government does it what it has been elected to do, and does it well and with a measure of integrity, it cannot use the reality of a disjointed opposition to press its case for re-election.
The Congress does not have anything approaching a simple majority of Lok Sabha seats. It is dependent on its two major allies, DMK and Trinamool Congress, and a clutch of smaller UPA partners to see it through the Lok Sabha. Moreover, it needs the RJD and even the Samajwadi Party to feel comfortable. It is, therefore, quite astonishing that the Congress often gives the impression that its position is akin to that enjoyed by the Nehru-Gandhi family in its heyday. Had this been a conscious bluff, a part of a psychological operation against the enemy, it would have been understandable. However, it would seem that the Congress is convinced of its imagined net high worth and is proceeding on the belief that a few acts of dereliction, waywardness and truancy will not jeopardise its innate infallibility. After all, or so the argument goes, the party has two further aces up its sleeve: an opposition that lacks self-confidence and, most important, the real leader who will seek his rightful inheritance before the next election.
The game plan seems quite attractive—assuming it is a game plan at all—but for two imponderables. What if the sheer exasperation of the electorate throws up an opposition leader who seeks victory rather than settling for a small nest egg? And what if the heir apparent finds the mess he has inherited is incapable of a quick-fix solution? Worse, what if the electorate sees UPA rule as a continuum and not something that can be divided into neat time zones—the dismal present befitting a Singh and a golden future worthy of the King?